The Luminarts Cultural Foundation at the Union League Club of Chicago supports young Chicago artists, writers, and musicians by selecting 20 Luminarts Fellows annually through a rigorous competitive process. Luminarts Fellows receive recognition and financial support, and are cultivated by the Foundation as they continue their artistic practice to the betterment of Chicago’s cultural landscape.
Founded in 1949 as the Union League Civic & Arts Foundation (CAF), Luminarts Cultural Foundation was created by members of the Union League Club of Chicago as a separate, not-for-profit organization. Deeply rooted in the Union League Club of Chicago, Luminarts strengthens the cultural community of Chicago by upholding the club’s century-long tradition of advocating for the arts. Luminarts is dedicated to encouraging our city’s outstanding young artists so that their emerging talent might be heard in performance halls, read within libraries and homes, and exhibited in galleries, museums, and the hallowed walls of the Union League Club.
Luminarts welcomes talented young artists of all social, economic and cultural backgrounds. As a young visual artist, musician, vocalist, or writer from the Chicago area, we invite and encourage you to compete for grants, creative opportunities, and to become Luminarts Fellows.
The Luminarts Fellowship includes competitions in Visual Arts, Creative Writing, Classical Music, and Jazz. In order to be eligible to apply for the Fellowship Program applicants must be between the ages of 18 and 30, live or reside within 150 miles of the Chicago Loop, and be currently enrolled in, or graduated from a degree program, conservatory, or other professional artist development program. For high school students not eligible for the Fellowship Program Luminarts offers high school competitions in creative writing, classical music, and jazz. Luminarts also offers extensive opportunities for Luminarts Fellows, including project grants/project support, special residency opportunities, lectures, workshops, mentorship, and facilitated conversations that provide valuable insights into building a successful career in the arts and strengthening our community of participating artists.
Artists, writers, and musicians who have been named Luminarts Fellows are eligible to apply for special funding through Fellow Project Grants; available only to Luminarts Fellows to support career development opportunities, including residencies, master classes, exhibition and performance expenses, publishing projects, professional travel, and more.
While these grants can be used for a broad array of career development opportunities, applicants must demonstrate how the funding will support this development, and how the funded experience will in turn benefit the Chicago community. Luminarts Fellows, including first- and second-place award recipients from previous years, are eligible to apply for a grant. Applicant requests for funding may not exceed $2,500 and the total request must be less than 50 percent of the total expenditure. Project Grants will be reviewed twice per year. Deadlines to apply are October 15 and March 15. Fellows will be notified about the status of their proposal within four weeks of the application deadline.
For questions about project grants and eligibility click below or contact the Foundation at email@example.com or call (312) 435-5961.
The Union League Club of Chicago (ULC) Library Writer in Residence Program is open to Luminarts Fellows, and is intended to give writers the time, space, and resources to pursue creative work in the inspired surrounding that is the ULC. Writers in Residence will be provided with full access to the ULC Library, space to work, will have a reading/event hosted in their honor, and Luminarts Fellows will receive a $1,000 stipend from the Luminarts Cultural Foundation. 2016 Residency dates available are February – April 2016, and May – July 2016. Applications are currently closed.
Luminarts supports exemplary high school students through its high school competitions in creative writing, classical music, and jazz. Each competition is open to high school students living within 150 miles of the Chicago Loop. In addition to the monetary awards distributed, the winning high school students are often afforded the opportunity to share their work through the Foundation.
Men’s Voice (24-30)
Women’s Voice (24-30)
Men’s Voice (18-23)
Women’s Voice (18-23)
a blue, human-sized pillow suspended—shoved, rather—in the rectangular opening of my fireplace, obstructing the bowel of chimney, when, lying down to get a better look, flashlight shining upward, I imagine the worst possibility, that the pillow with fall on my tired, immovable body, giving in to the weight of the decomposing thing that has found its soft and final resting place.
: noticing, finally, what we’ve failed to notice and the why, why, now, do we feel the need to notice it?
: the little girl on the sidewalk who, with her eyes closed, throws her arms around my hips because she has mistaken me for her mother—not the little girl, exactly, but her mother, the look on her face when I smile and touch her daughter on the head, wanting to be friendly, not wanting to startle or embarrass her, the force by which I feel the mother yank the girl aggressively from my body.
: a kind of cognitive violence, all credit to Amitav Ghosh, Ghosh who tightly squeezed the hands of his two American-born children on the Brooklyn Bridge, watching a plume of smoke and sound rise over a familiar-made-unfamiliar Manhattan skyline.
: my father, ten years younger, detained in an airport holding cell, flying home to Atlanta, knowing and not knowing what it means to resist an ascribed recognition, the taste of blood, the click of a projector maximizing the photo of an unrelated man with the same name, same brown eyes, same black beard as my father—my father beginning to cry, not wanting to, another man leafing through his recently and legally acquired blue passport, the passport having already been leafed through by a roomful of gun-belted, smirking officers who are all getting paid for this.
: the news of death and death that comes with each new birthday, the calls from my mother an expectation for the both of us—another, another, another, the click of the receiver and my soundless return to double-knotting the yellow drawstring of the kitchen trash bag before I throw it in the metal bin behind my complex, before the contents of that bin are ejected into an even larger metal bin, before all of it is thrown back onto the ground somewhere, the ground we were saving from the trash in the first place.
: a creeping question, When is it my turn? and the inability to know when or whether it is or is not my turn, my time, my exit, my some or any thing.
: my mother’s mother, the straight bridge of her nose and hands, her hands bending shortly before her death, belonging to someone else while writing numbers and decimals on a yellow pad of paper—Home, her saying it, I want to go home.
: my father who never forgets to shave his face, now, once in the morning, and once, again, in the evening.
: the incessant desire and instinct to remove the blue pillow from the hole in my fireplace and, finally, the removal of the blue pillow from the hole in my fireplace followed by the clink and fall of nothing—followed by a startling, insistent moan resonating from the deep, dark opening.
: a radical interruption in the procedures and protocols that give the world a semblance of comprehensibility—Ghosh, again
: the smell and texture of anonymous human shit in my double-gloved hand as I scour the floor of a public bathroom, the wages that go along with it, the way my stomach thrashes and heaves involuntarily, rejecting what came from another body, the brief wonder about whether or not the job I have undertaken would be easier if what I held in my hand came from my own body.
: the man in the gas mask who has been hired to dismantle my fireplace and chimney to find who or what the moan belongs to—the sound of his power tools, metal grinding against brick, as rubble and cinder fall in every direction, as I shout to him, barefoot and braless, that there must be another way—how, suddenly, he stops drilling, his strong hands surprisingly shaky, and asks me what he should do, what I would do.
: the Easter before last, learning that my father’s mother had entered a coma—how, a week before, I mourned her life, thinking she was dead, the news of her hospitalization traveling from cousin to cousin, continent to continent, like a game of telephone, Dead, I was told in English, Mulala is dead.
: shining my own flashlight into the growing wound of the blown-open drywall to be confronted by a new and aggressive sound, a sound both tenacious and vindictive, the sound of a protective mother, shouting wildly to the man in the gas mask that there must be a family of animals in there, the sigh and irritated jerk of his shoulders as he throws off his gloves to answer his phone that has been ringing loudly and incessantly during all of the moaning and drilling to say, Sorry, baby, I’m at work, I’ll call you later, I’m at work, I can’t go to dinner.
: the terse email from a dear and faraway friend, Cancer again, dear Love, R, the constant struggle between life and death, disease and remission, disease and remission—and, finally, death, finally a long-distance phone call to his wonderful wife, D, who speaks quickly and elliptically about the legal paperwork she is drowning in, the settling of medical bills and expenses, the cost of a funeral.
: dreaming, for days, of my father’s mother, her cold, gray body in the open mouth of the Sebdou river—lifting, washing, and wrapping her bent, hollow shoulders.
: everything between the known and unknown, the realization that knowing, itself, is nothing more than a whimsical exertion.
: opening the drywall from the other side, discovering a season’s worth of leaves and wool and paper—the man in the gasmask instinctively hacking at the leaves and wool and paper with the sharp-edged back of a hammer.
It is no easy task to throw a decent party. This Amanda Harding has learned in the thirty-one years of her life.
From seven in the evening on, people flood through the doors of the Harding house. They shuffle into each room from the parlor to the piano, admiring the oil paintings, the straight-faced portraits and bronze crystal chandeliers. They throw their gaze to the tin ceilings, then cast it to flawless fir floors. They search for their reflections in the mirrors and imagine what it is like to live in such a home, how it is to be a Harding. At the sight of everything marvelous, they squeeze each other’s hands and say: look! That vase. Look! That china. Look! Look! Look! That vitrine, those plates, these glasses. Everywhere, there is something exquisite; around each corner is something new to admire: the moulded tile fireplace, a built-in buffet, redwood and stained glass colonnades. The most envious of guests search for minor details to criticize; anything gaudy they call gauche, and the more they drink, the less dainty their movements grow. They point and gasp and touch. Eventually they go upstairs to the second floor where the rowdiest guests roister and the noise level is twofold. Some lean off the second floor veranda, smoke from the cigar room wafting out into the Glen Iris night like fumes from a fire. When the house becomes too full, they gather for fresh air on the plush lawn, voices carrying into the vacant homes of neighbors, or they sit on the porch where the scent of Amanda’s rosebushes looms.
The rules for proper hosting have been passed down from her mother, Mary Beth Moore, and her mother before that, and now they are deeply embedded in Amanda’s mind. The hostess of a large soiree should stay on her feet. She ought to move about the home to interact with company. No guest should go unspoken to. Good form in speech and manner is essential, from the greeting to kindly taking leave when it’s time to move on. In addition to her guests, the woman of the house must tend to the man of the house—in this case William Harding, though it should never appear as if she is tending to anything. This is no garden party. For that occasion, there is a different set of rules. To entertain is to work hard, but it should not look like work at all. The hostess must appear at ease. She should chime in on current events without delving into politics or science, for these topics are reserved for men. She shouldn’t override a conversation, though she should make herself available for chatter. She ought to laugh when a guest uses humor, though personal jokes are of poor taste at a formal party. In the face of a social blemish or uncouth behavior, the hostess should turn away. Above all, it is the hostess’s job to put everyone else’s needs before hers, and people can be terribly needy.
Take Mr. Wagner, for example, the town pharmacist that Amanda catches snooping through the medicine cabinet not long after his arrival. “A professional inspection,” he calls it, “is what every good home needs. The right remedies are important.” He has that look in his eyes like he’s taken a good dose of something special. He stares off into nothing specific and points a finger ominously toward nowhere.
“How about a drink?” Amanda motions him toward the party. “The bar could use a good inspection, too. Bubbles go with everything.”
She leads Mr. Wagner through the hallways, his hair unruly and grey, and with a seltzer in hand he soon forgets about the embarrassment he’s caused. Amanda leaves him babbling to Mrs. Hoffman, the widow from Bessemer who claims to have healing powers. The right hostess knows who will click.
The entire interaction is discrete, but from across the way, William Harding watches his wife with satisfaction. He prefers she does not stray too far. As Amanda moves, the fabric of her crimson dress drapes teasingly between her legs. Her stride, elongated by the heels of gold shoes, becomes liquid, like she is swimming. Guests step back in a ripple effect of admiration when Amanda Harding walks through the room.
“You’re so good, dear,” William says, before pulling her into the library for a brief moment of intimacy. Amanda knows it is true; she is so good at entertaining. He corners her in front of the hardback books where he wraps his hands all the way around her tightly stitched waist and brings her closer by the rear. He kisses her open-mouthed and assertively before returning to the party.
Amanda has mastered all the etiquette a southern woman is expected to know. So long as she has the ability to lift a flute of champagne to her mouth, she can do the rest with eyes closed. Amanda is expected to entertain, to open her home in such a way because she is the wife of Mr. W.P.G. “William” Harding, president of the First National Bank, and pioneer, he likes to remind people, of Birmingham’s industrial movement. These parties are but one of their contributions to a city ruled by socialites. This is Birmingham, the Magic City. Alabama, part of the Solid South where citizens come together for two occasions: business or pleasure, and because business is booming, there is much pleasure to be had. There are few things anyone here cares for in 1909: railroads, steel, and the society pages of the Birmingham News, where the Harding parties are fully documented with black and white photographs of Birmingham’s best, spilling gin out of their martini glasses. In light of Roosevelt’s motto, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” they joke of speaking loudly and carrying big drinks.
In the kitchen, Mariah leads the cooks like an army moving into battle. She is a skilled cook, like most colored women in the new south, and at sixty-two, she can still run circles around the rest of them. The staff consists of women from eighteen to forty-six, all with pressed white aprons and shined shoes, hair plated down or pulled tightly into buns. For this occasion, the Hardings have brought in extra help, and if there is one thing every hire should know, it is that Mariah is boss. This kitchen is Mariah’s domain and when she calls, “Go on the trout!” the trout goes swiftly from the broiler to a sterling silver platter and out into the dining room with a serving fork. The back of her finger is better than any thermometer and when she says the roast needs another minute, it better get exactly sixty seconds, no more, no less. Mariah demands every hors d’oeuvre, dish, and tray leave the kitchen in pristine condition. Each plating is symmetrical, the sides wiped clean, so when she catches twelve year-old Elizabeth Harding dipping her finger into the blancmange, Mariah says scram. There are no lopsided finger sandwiches, no disproportioned deviled eggs in her kitchen. It is loud, but every movement is controlled. Pots are placed on the stove, saucepans simmer, and stock boils on the burner. Whisks clatter inside bowls, plates stack neatly next to the sink. These cooks don’t flinch when grease bubbles strike their arms. They don’t take breaks between courses. Though it is so very hot behind these swinging doors, Mariah forgets her discomfort in the midst of it all.
By default, as a permanent hire in the Harding house, Leila Sanders is second in command, though she has hardly earned her keep. She stands in the corner between the sink and the stove calling to Mariah, “we outta lemons, Mariah. We outta lemons.” Her twenty-two year-old mouth hangs open; dread has spread itself across Leila’s pretty face. Sliced lemons are to be served with the tea pitchers and lemon juice is needed for the sautéed asparagus, and yet, as Leila points out: “There’s no lemons.”
The kitchen goes quiet. The women hold their breath, but keep their heads down. They await Mariah’s response, though Mariah does not stop plating; she does not pause or panic. She shows no reaction until the platter of croquettes has gone with Miss Abby through the double doors. Then she straightens out her back and asks, “when were we low?”
“Low?” says Leila.
“On lemons. At some point we done had three lemons, then two lemons, then one single lemon. But you was gonna wait ’til we was out to say something?”
Leila looks confused, like she can’t remember when they ran out. Before she can answer, Mariah says, “They’s a bowl of lemons on the buffet. Bring it to me.”
Trepidation dissolves from Leila’s face.
December 30, 1903
The last time Benjamin Marshall ate a corned beef sandwich was the same day he killed more than six hundred people. It was early afternoon, the wind bitter as it swept over the icy shallows of Lake Michigan. The fine hairs in Benjamin’s nose froze together, so he ducked into The Berghoff to thaw. He hadn’t expected an interruption: he was knuckle-deep in his corned beef sandwich, pulling off the strings of sauerkraut, removing all the bitterness he could.
“Mr. Marshall!” A man’s voice. A warning. When Benjamin looked up, his fingers in his sandwich, Minnie Dorsey was running at him. Her face was drawn tight. Her hair piled in a loose knot on the top of her head, golden curls frizzling out from the mass. Most women Benjamin knew kept their hair pinned strict, their curls revealed only in a calculated, cascading way. But not Minnie. Everything about Minnie was different than the other woman Benjamin knew.
It was well-known that women weren’t allowed in The Berghoff’s saloon, though a mostly unspoken rule. And so, everyone’s eyes were on Benjamin. On Minnie, really. If it were anyone but Minnie, he’d have prepared himself for a slap over something he’d done, but Minnie was one of the fun girls. She never seemed to mind when she caught Benjamin out with a different girl on his arm, dizzy with champagne.
“Ben,” she gasped, breathless.
“Benjamin,” he corrected her, as he always did.
Standing before him, her cheeks were flushed rosy. She looked so wild, so Minnie that Benjamin wanted to reach out and touch her face, but everyone was looking. And it was The Berghoff after all. “What is it?” he asked her, trying to keep his tone even.
“Benjamin Marshall,” she said, with an edge to her voice, a mix of urgency and now, annoyance. “Your beloved theatre is on fire.”
The Iroquois Theatre—his beloved theatre—had been completed a month earlier, and while he did not own the building, he felt it to be his in every other sense of the word. He had designed it, after all. Every time he strolled past the white-gray façade (that Bedford Lime!), he felt soothed by the structure’s symmetry, the repetitive windows. The French-inspired arch with the thick columns on either side made the theatre seem larger than it really was (and what man wouldn’t like that?). A Chicago drama critic had called the interior the most majestic in the city, maybe even the country. Every time Benjamin thought about that review, he felt a swelling his stomach, like he was full from a long supper at King Yen Lo, fortune cookie and all. Finally, Benjamin didn’t need a Chinese fortune cookie to tell him that he would amount to something great after all.
“It’s bad, Benjamin,” Minnie said, her hands on her hips.
Someone touched Benjamin’s shoulder before he could respond to Minnie. “Mr. Marshall,” said Mr. Berghoff in his thick German accent, the same voice that had called out when Minnie had entered the establishment. “No ladies allowed, folks.” He looked pained, as if he wished he didn’t have to say the words aloud—after all, the rule was something everyone should just know.
“My apologies,” Benjamin said, holding up his hands, still sticky from the soaked cabbage. “Miss Dorsey is on her way out,” he said with a tight smile at Minnie. She turned with a huff and stalked away, the S curve of her hips waggling as she did.
By the time Benjamin threw his nickel on the table, Minnie was nowhere to be seen. He wiped his hands on the linen napkin and took his time with his scarf and hat. Benjamin didn’t need anyone thinking he was fleeing. That something was wrong.
But his theatre was on fire. That’s what Minnie had said, at least. And Benjamin trusted Minnie—she was the only one he’d allow to hold his wallet, keys and clothing if he were to take a late summer evening dip in Lake Michigan to admire the twinkling Chicago skyline. Then again, Minnie would likely be the only gal who would want to jump into the chilly water with him, bare-skinned and giggling.
Outside, the air was gray with smoke, but maybe it was only Benjamin’s imagination. It was probably a small fire. In the manager’s office, maybe. Started by a careless cigar or the stupid strike of a match. The fire had probably been stopped already with a bit of Kylfire. Maybe Minnie was just being a dramatic woman (like all the others he knew) for the first time.
He wove through the street, headed toward his building. The theatre had once been solely his, designed by no strokes of lead other than his own. He began to hear the talk on the street around him—children dead—curtain caught fire—not enough exit routes—poorly designed.
Poorly designed! The words rang in his ears as the clanging fire trucks grew louder. He glimpsed the stately Native American atop his building—an Iroquois Indian, just like the theater’s name. As he came closer, he could see the other statues: Tragedy and Comedy, the two mirroring one another above the crowd in a cruel irony as they looked down at the now-frantic audience that had been laughing at the show only an hour earlier. Tragedy and Comedy were a sure pair: never one without the other.
Benjamin couldn’t see through the crowd. He pushed through the mass, running. His strides were short and stiff in his brand-new shoes. He caught a glimpse of Minnie before him, trudging in her thick skirts. She had seen the fire already. She knew what to expect as the crowd opened up, and the building appeared before them. But he had not known what to anticipate. Minnie’s words, It’s bad, Benjamin, did not fully describe the scene.
The theatre was black with soot, crumbling. Crumbling like his good name surely would. Smoke filled the street, thick and grey like the kind that spilled from the steel mill in Gary. Not like anything he’d seen in the city in the years since the Great Fire.
The program for the musical had bragged: “ABSOLUTELY FIREPROOF.” He had been proud of that. Benjamin wondered if he’d ever be able to brag again, himself.
It wasn’t the smoke, the heat, or the smell that stopped Benjamin from running any closer. It was the people: soot-covered children, a woman screaming while she clutched a bloodied, the featureless dead piled on the sidewalk. “Lord have mercy,” he said aloud, stopping short. This wasn’t a puny spark in the manager’s office.
Benjamin looked for Minnie, but there were too many women rushing past. Some cried soundlessly, some wailed, their pitch matching the dull clanging of the bells atop the fire carriages. A woman grasped his arm. Her thin fingers were Minnie’s—long and lovely. “Thank God it’s you,” he said, but when he turned he saw the woman was not Minnie. This woman was dark-haired, older. Her eyes were wide with shock. Dirt smudged her cheek. Benjamin normally would have brushed her away, assuming her a street beggar. But this woman wore diamonds in her ears, and her face was full and healthy. “I can’t find Ernest,” she said, her tone flat. She looked at Benjamin, handing the assignment off like a message runner to a clerk. “He’s my son.”
He didn’t want to be tasked with finding the boy, but what could he do? “Where did you see him last?” Squatting on the street curb were groups of children waiting to be collected. The woman was in shock; her boy was probably on a stoop, sitting right before them.
“He was buying a refreshment,” she said, nodding at the burning building that stood before them.
“Then he was near an exit,” Benjamin said, remembering the door he’d designed in the hallway. He’d covered with a curtain, of course, for aesthetic purposes, but someone—an usher, a bartender—would have pointed it out. There were more than enough exits for the patrons to use. He was sure of that.
“How do you know?” The woman eyed him. Her mouth was pulled into a tight frown.
The truth sat heavy on Benjamin’s tongue: I built this! Three words he was so used to saying with pride. But after the rumor on the street that the theatre was poorly designed Benjamin couldn’t acknowledge his part in the construction. Not here, on the street, when people were frantic and irrational. “I saw the show last week,” he said instead, also the truth.
Benjamin grabbed the woman’s hand, leading her through the crowd to the exit off of the side alley. “Ernest,” he said, to block out the panicked noises around him. “What a nice name.”
The woman didn’t attempt a smile. “It’s his grandfather’s name,” she said. “He passed two
my professor of poetry says poets don’t write enough poems of the future
but when I get to the future I will write all of the poems
and hope that her email is still the same
or probably mourn the fact that email is now outdated
and so I will probably just look up at the sky
which by that time will be greenish with sick
I DID IT
when I get to the future I will know I have arrived
because the bungalows I grew up in will be the same
but less shingled and more dead
because my dog will be dead
because medicine will have figured out the old things again
but it was still too late for my parents
because in the face of that many waiting rooms
we will all have learned forbearance
because prayers are never answered
but the apocalypse-old practice still sticks
because police squads and hit lists
because frigid lake michigan outdid the last millennium’s park
and the loop is now a shark town
because in a utilitarian purge they fired up the furnaces
and nothing worth keeping didn’t burn down
because the ground dies fast
with chemicals and bone ash
because thrashing in the smoke
and waiting for the future
when I get to the future we will sleep little and worry much
those of us who spoke out against the regime
then met like a lover in the night the cocked
barrel of a uniformed pistol
and disappeared like the fall
killed a man for a
when I get to the future I will not have seen a black person
or immigrant in a decade or more
or less but honestly
who will want to keep track of time when we get to the future
the tongues of women have been cut out
and matter was removed from the dictionaries as anything but a dull noun
the queers were cleared out of the dark bars before they even had a chance to cut out
and anyone unhappy with their gender made nothing but a dull sound
when they dropped
(I myself escaped that fate
I paid an anonymous surgeon to chop off the telltale appendage
my kids asked me why we had to eat discarded scraps for so long
while I was saving for the operation
I told them it was for The Future)
I will hardly remember sex
my ex-lovers now rot in an unmarked and uncovered ditch
I visited once and never again
weeds did not grow there
and I have still found no one
I long since gave up on that
my kids I got from someone else
I stopped saying her name years ago
hoping they’d forget
when I get to the future
my kids will look up at me and say Bebe? What is this?
and they will be holding the books of poetry that once I hid in the cellar
and I will whisper One Day
We Could Fit Our Lives Onto Paper
when I get to the future the trees will be gone
we will carve poems into sheet metal left over from the still smoking ovens
and float them down slowly over the brown line
praying someone stranded in one of the skyscrapers still exceeding the sludge
will find it and
extending an extended metaphor into the churn of the nasty water
row their way west towards pulaski
when I get to the future the present will feel like a dream
like a very early morning when the sun is not yet rising
Children I will say
Did I Ever Read You The One About Sunshine And Bungalows
About A Time When We Could Fight The Fear That Killed Us
About The Many Killed
About Your Grandparents God Bless Them
About God Blessing Anyone
when I get to the future I will never go to church
(the churches were worth keeping and so every one burned)
and when I need guidance I will pray to the Lord
and She will thank me for calling and say
All lines are busy.
Please leave your name, number, and message at the beep
and I will get back to you as soon as possible.
I used to make mudshoes out of sticks and mud. They were the most comfortable shoes until you went and tried to leave in them. They were standing and looking shoes, not walking shoes. I did it practically every day one summer, and I remember the warm mud and the sticks and the worms curling between my toes. I remember feeling safe and happy. My toes and the earthworms, they were pals.
One morning my father decided that if I was going to play in the mud all day I should do something useful. So I was out planting trees along the back fence that bordered the neighbor woman’s house and making mudshoes every once in awhile. The neighbor woman always sunned herself in a swimsuit. Each bone from the clavicle down was visible, the whole ribcage added on like armor. She had a calm mute look, that’s the impression she gave, a woman who wouldn’t ever yell at me. I’d watch her when standing in my mudshoes and admire how her hips jutted out. Little bony handles that held up bikini bottoms. And she had these thin-skinned bird-wing arms that were good for nothing apparently because I had to shovel her driveway in the winter. When my father saw the woman, he’d say she was starving herself, that she was sick, that she was crazy, which made me feel weird because I thought she was pretty.
After I’d been digging and planting for an hour or so, the shovel struck wood. It was not a root but wood, actual wood, a thing, a wooden plank-like thing. The top of a chest? I thought. A secret door? I dug fast, forgot the small trees my father said to plant, and raced to find the dimensions.
The chest grew larger the more I uncovered. I dug to the middle of the lawn, a good twelve-feet, and didn’t care about ruining the grass because with gold coins it wouldn’t matter. With rare jewels we’d move to Disney World or Poland or Nashville near Shania Twain.
“What’d you find?” the woman said, a low tired drone. She stood on her heron legs leering over the fence at me.
“None of your business,” I said.
This made her laugh, a musical noise, a loon call, a full laugh that shouldn’t have come from such a body. I could tell she liked me, and that made me like her. I suddenly wanted to tell her about how we always went to see the herons on the lake. The herons are here! we said one season, and The loons are here! we said another. Up until this year I would get them confused. Loons sang pretty, but looked like ducks, and herons looked like my neighbor—that was how I kept them straight. But I’d learned from Mother not to talk about a woman’s looks so I didn’t tell her anything.
“I hope it’s not a coffin,” she said. I stopped digging. I hadn’t thought of that.
“No,” I said, “that’s not what they look like.”
“Maybe it’s a really old one.”
“You aren’t going to scare me,” I said, “so quit trying.”
Coffin or not, with her watching I had to continue. I got a shovel under the wood and lifted. My veins bulged from the strain. I muscled and fought and made it look harder than it was, until thwup, it came free: a mosaic of slugs and roly-polies lay underneath, nothing else. Someone had buried a board.
“Just bugs,” I said and let it fall. But I wasn’t disappointed, not like I thought I’d be. She was smiling.
“Now mudshoes,” I said, and went to get the hose.
I fascinated on things like mudshoes, and when I fascinated on things, I couldn’t help but do the thing until it was worn out. All the times I wasn’t in my mudshoes, I was contemplating them. In fact I didn’t quit contemplating mudshoes until the next thing came along, which happened to be stealing souls. I wanted to catch one and keep it, like a fish pulled from the river. I imagined the devil coming in with a specialized Soul-Sucking Vacuum© and making a clean sweep of a whole town. Thing was, I’d made that up about the vacuum so I knew it wasn’t right. I wanted to know how it really was.
I actually got the soul stealing idea from my father. After he got back from bowling one Saturday, he sat me down—he went bowling early on Saturdays so that he could be home for dinner and some sobering up, and then head to the real bar downtown. Not for the first time, he told me to stay away from women: “A woman will steal your soul,” he said, in the same tone of voice he’d used before letting me drive his riding lawnmower. “It doesn’t matter how young or how old you are, you got to fight to keep it. Because if they get your soul…what you got left?”
He waited for me to answer. I said that I didn’t know.
“Only your balls, kid. Only them.” He laughed and thwatted me between the legs. He hadn’t hit me hard, and it hadn’t hurt, but I screamed and cried and fell to the floor anyway. I seized like an epileptic, like a possessed washing machine, like a sad selfish boy with a poor sense of his place in the universe.
He stood up after a time and without speaking left for downtown. I couldn’t tell by how long he lingered, by his walk, or by how he shut the door, whether he’d been disappointed in me or sorry he’d done it. I wanted him to be sorry.
But that was later, after my last pair of mudshoes.
I had picked up worms while digging the big hole, and tossed them to the sides so they wouldn’t get cut by the shovel. I started making the woman and me mudshoes right where I’d put all the worms. They were going to be extra-wormy mudshoes, I told her, and she didn’t make a face.
I picked a long fat one up and showed her: “What do you know about the soul?”
“Not much. Look, you can see its heart,” she said, pointing, but I knew that already.
I dropped the hose into the trench. We stood there in our mudshoes on either side of the hole and watched it fill up with water.
“It’s a moat,” she said.
“Yeah, for protection.”
“Just for protection.”
“Are you afraid of me?”
“No,” I said quickly. I didn’t like her saying that—thinking I was scared of some weak lady with bird arms.
“Well, sometimes I am,” she said. It was silent for a while so I picked up another worm. Its visible little heart pulsed. “You get what I mean, I think, don’t you?”
I didn’t, but I nodded.
That evening, while my father was sobering up, we were all on the back porch eating ribs and rice. The woman came out to water her plants. My father motioned toward her and muttered to my mother: “The loons are out.” She swatted his thigh and her eyes said, You are so bad, but she wasn’t really mad.
“She’s not a loon,” I said. “Look at those legs, she’s a heron.”
This surprised my parents and set them off on an avalanche of laughter. They’d never heard me say that before, which seemed weird because I’d been thinking it all summer. They convulsed, it was torture, they said, they couldn’t stop, and so when the woman heard all the noise and, not knowing a thing, waved to us on the porch, I was the only one that saw and waved back.
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