03 May 2007

These grapes are a bit tart...no, wait, sour. Yes, they're sour.

A few months back, McSweeney's had a contest to take one of these story ideas F. Scott Fitzgerald had come up with, but never made flesh, and bring it to life.

I knocked out a story (not my best work, but I didn't feel any of the premises) based on the premise: "A criminal confesses his crime methods to a reformer, who uses them that same night." I'd been rejected by McSweeney's before (and when you consider some of the tripe they publish online, that's a bit insulting), so my expectations were low. Still, I figured I'd give it a shot.

Over the last month, month and a half, they've posted three runners-up and today, the winner. Now, I know I'm biased, but I'm pretty sure my crap effort is better than at least one, probably two of the runners-up. The winner? It beats my piece, hands down. The final runner-up - "High Branch"? It kicks my ass and the winner's ass down the street like over-inflated soccer balls. But I'm still damned if I get the sensibilities of McSweeney's online editor.

But don't take my word for it...here's a link to the selections and below is my sub-par effort. Please feel free not only to comment, but to be brutal. Rip and shred, rank the pieces, criticize me at will. If you normally just come and read quietly, shaking your head, take this opportunity to bash. Invite others. Really. I particularly look forward to comments from the Donut shop. :)

Sunday in the Park with Miriam

"Thank you, ma'am, I surely do appreciate the hot meal. Last one I had was down to the jail, and the bulls ain't as nice as you."

"Jail? Have you spent much time there Mr. Galway?"

"Enough Miss Addams. Enough so's I hope never to go back."

Jane placed her frail, mottled hand atop Joseph's smooth and delicate one and locked her eyes on his. Smiling slightly, the corners of her eyes crinkling, she bade him tell about his troubles with the law. Tentatively, he spoke of his life. He spoke of the predations he suffered in the rundown orphanage back in Gary and the desperate midnight dash he took to escape. He told Jane of riding a coal car to Chicago and rooting in the trash for scraps of food to survive the first cold nights.

Cocooned in the warm embrace of her gaze, Joseph lowered his defenses and told Jane about the other Irish boys he met on the South Side. Only a child, he was recruited to serve as lookout while the others robbed the swells leaving theaters and speakeasies. Quickly caught up in the gang life, he soon graduated to robbing homes and stores and rose within the gang's ranks.

"One evening, pawning our haul, Johnny the Fence told us he could get us a lot more money. There was a traveling exhibit at the Art Institute, and Johnny knew a man who'd pay a fortune for one of the paintings on display. If we did the job for Johnny, we'd get half the take.

"I don't know how we got out without gettin' pinched, but we did. Johnny gave us fifty bucks for that painting and we figured he was crazy. That, or some old fellow was crazy wanting to pay so much for a picture. It wasn't 'til later we found out how much it was worth. From then on, we were Johnny's regular crew for museum jobs."

"How were you able to elude capture, Mr. Galway? I'd imagine museums have considerable security to protect their valuable contents."

"They do. Next job we went on, I got nabbed. But bein' as I was just a boy and nothing was missin' - seein' as I'd got caught before we got the painting - the judge let me off after a couple days in jail. That's when we figured out our angle. If we could always make it look like nothin' was missin', we'd be a whole lot better off. It took us a while, but we found a fellow could make copies for us before we went in. Every picture we took, we put a fake in its place."

With a glint in her eye, Jane asked "wouldn't it have been safer to simply provide the fraudulent paintings to the clients?"

"We tried that once. But the fakes didn't fool the rich men...or Johnny. I got pistol whipped for trying."

"But the forgeries weren't detected by the museums?"

"No, ma'am. I guess they just never think to check."

"And what's brought you to Hull House, Mr. Galway? I'd think a successful art thief would have no use for our services."

"I been running since I was seven. I just wanna rest. I'm through with that life."

* * *
"Hullions! Assemble!" Jane's steely voice echoed in the lamp-lit cavern deep beneath the sleeping city.

* * *
More than forty years ago, workmen laying the foundations of Hull House discovered a small subterranean cave. Sealing over the entrance, it was quickly forgotten. One cold morning late in the winter of 1926, Jane went to the basement to get the last of October's canned beets. Noticing a crack that had appeared in the hastily cemented opening, she found a hammer and began to chip at the wall. In a few moments, she'd opened it wide enough to squeeze into the long-forgotten cave. Pushing into the darkness with her small lantern, her own breath warmed the small space, barely wide enough to pass. Just as Jane was about to conclude her first adventure in spelunking, the dust she'd kicked up tickled her throat and she coughed. The echoes seemed to last for eternity.

As she crouched down, a gentle breeze caressed Jane's face. Crawling forward as though she were still a little girl in Cedarville at play with her sisters, her head breached a large cavern. The small lantern's glow barely reached the far wall.

It took Jane and her closest confidants a month to fully map out the cave system and another six months to match that up to the streets above. In four-hour shifts, teams of women would measure and explore the tunnels and chambers while others brought down equipment and tools. Two women died falling into open chasms, which were quickly fenced off. Wiring the caverns took most of '26, but when it was complete, Jane and her coterie had a private retreat from the chaos above.

When the maps were complete, Jane and the women were able to move about the city undetected. Sewer lines, gas lines, and tunnels for telephone, telegraph, and electrical cable were accessible at various points through the cave system. An amusing game in the '20s, this became a necessity in the '30s.

* * *
A few weeks after the crash Jane first had the notion to get into crime. During the boom years, there had been plenty of work for the residents and enough donations from the gilded class to keep Hull House running smoothly. All of that had vanished by mid-November, and Jane grew anxious. Their great experiment couldn't run on dreams and empty promises; it needed money. She resisted the temptations until spring.

At Christmas time, she had reluctantly recruited a few of the younger girls for panhandling; by March it was clear that no one could - or would - give money willingly, so they progressed to pickpocketing and purse snatching. Seeing positive cash flow for the first time in months, Jane decided to branch out into prostitution and robbery. The Hullions were born.

* * *
Joseph Galway came to Hull House in November of 1934, looking to find peace and salvation. By February, Jane had learned all she could about the layout, security protocols, and weak spots of the Art Institute. Meanwhile, she'd found a forger from within the ranks of her Hullions: Miriam Sikorski had studied art in her youth in Krakow; in her twilight years she found use for those skills. Working diligently for ten hours each day, Miriam touched brush to canvas tens of thousands of times, finally completing the forgery in early May of '35.

Jane, still spry at 75, led three of her cohorts - Miriam, Lucille McGrady, and little Noelle Brown - through the caves to the eastern-most exit. While only two miles from the Art Institute, they'd need to be above ground for half the trek while carrying the seven foot by 10 foot painting. Even rolled up it was awkward; however, it was the return trip that most concerned them. Getting into the museum was easy. What they didn't count on was how hard it would be to swap out the huge canvas with their copy. The four women struggled for five full minutes replacing the 50-year-old masterpiece with its doppelganger. Failing to replace the painting would be as bad as being caught in the act. At the last moment, it was finally in place and the women ran to the exit and into the night.

With the original rolled up and resting over the shoulders of two of the Hullions, the women continued to run back to the nearest entrance to the caves, arriving out of breath but exhilarated. Composing themselves, they sealed off the entrance and walked back to the main cavern, their laughter echoing around them.

Jane Addams passed away two weeks later. Despite the loss of her steely hand at the helm, Hull House continued for many years; however, the Hullions went adrift. No instructions were left regarding the painting, so it was left unsold and untouched in the cave which Lucille and Noelle sealed off shortly after the funeral. With the Hullions dispersed, the cave, the crime spree, and the painting became memory.

* * *
To this day, Miriam Sikorski's Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte hangs at the Art Institute of Chicago while Georges Seurat's original molders in the almost-forgotten cave beneath the Hull House Museum. The sole surviving Hullion - Mrs. Leonard Bloom of Oak Grove, Illinois - delights in taking her grandchildren to the Art Institute at least once a year. The children look forward to the trip to the city and have never asked their Nana Noelle why she laughs so hard when they stop to admire the pointillist masterpiece.