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EXCLUSIVE: A New Christmas Story from Barry Gifford

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 14, 2009 6:20PM

2009_12_14gifford xmas.jpg
photo via smaedli
We have a real holiday treat for you: a previously unpublished Christmas tale by master storyteller Barry Gifford, a Chicago native and author of such books as Wild at Heart and, most recently, Memories from a Sinking Ship (Seven Stories Press.) He also co-wrote the screenplay of Lost Highway with David Lynch, and earlier this year he played Nelson Algren in a stage production at the Steppenwolf honoring the centennial of Algren's birth.

"The Starving Dogs of Little Croatia" will appear in Sad Stories of the Death of Kings, to be published next autumn by Seven Stories Press (and if you're hungry for more, here's another Christmas story to check out.)

Picture, if you will, a vanished Chicago. The stockyards are still open. Richard J. is in City Hall. And a fresh wave of Croatian immigrants is settling into the fabric of the city; Edward "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak, the son of Croatian saloonkeepers from the Southeast Side, is attending the University of Chicago Law School. Picture yourself on snowy West Chicago Avenue near Santa Maria Addolorata Church.

The story begins after the jump.

The Starving Dogs of Little Croatia
by Barry Gifford

      “Every man lives like hunted animal,” said Drca Kovic.
      “You make this just up?” asked Boro Catolica.
      “What is difference?” Drca said, “if it is truth?”
      The two men, both in their mid-thirties, were seated next to one another on stools at the bar in Dukes Up Tavern on Anna Ruttar Street drinking shots of Four Sisters backed with Old Style chasers. Brenda Lee was on the jukebox belting out “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” just as she did every December. Boro Catolica lit up a Lucky.
      “Ten years now Chicago,” he said, “and no truth more than Zagreb.”
      “At least here we drink in peace,” said Drca Kovic. “There we drink in war.”
      “Yes, but probably we end up lying still in alley with cats they are looking at us. Our eyes they are open but not being able see theirs.”
      It was seven o’clock on a Friday evening two days before Christmas. There were four inches of snow on the ground with more expected. Boro and Drca had been in Dukes Up since ten to five, thirty minutes after dark and twenty minutes following the end of their shift at Widerwille Meatpacking on Pulaski Avenue. The men worked full days Monday through Friday and half days on Saturday.
      “You notice old man Widerwille not so often check line now?” said Boro. 
      “Probably too cold in freezer for him,” Drca said. “Blood is thinner.”
      The front door opened and two boys, both about eleven or twelve years old, entered the tavern, bringing with them a blast of icy air accompanied by a spray of new snow.
      Emile Wunsch, the bartender and part owner of Dukes Up, shouted, “No minors allowed! And shut that door!”
      “There’s a dead guy lyin’ out on the sidewalk,” said the larger of the two boys.
      The smaller boy closed the door.
      “How do you know he’s dead?” said Emile Wunsch.
      “He looks like Arne Pedersen did,” said the smaller boy, “after he died from Sterno poisoning last February.”
      “His body froze overnight,” the other boy said, “on the steps of Santa Maria Addolorata.”
      Boro and Drca went out, followed by the boys. Half a minute later the four of them came back inside.
      “It’s Bad Lands Bill,” said Boro, brushing snow from his head, “the Swede was from North of Dakota.”
      “The flatnosed guy used to work at the chicken cannery?” asked Emile.
      Drca nodded. “His skin is blue and there is no breathing.”
      “We saw his eyes were open,” said the smaller boy, “so we stopped to look at him.” 
      “He wasn’t blinkin’,” said the larger boy, “his tongue’s stickin’ out and it’s blue, too.”
      The two Croatian men went back outside, picked up the body and carried it into Dukes Up, where they set it down on the floor. Boro closed the door.
      “I’ll call the precinct,” said Emile Wunsch, “tell ’em to send a wagon. You boys can stick around to tell the cops how you found him.”
      Drca and Boro went back to their stools at the bar.
      “Boys you want Coca-Cola?” asked Boro.
      “Sure,” said the smaller one.
      “I am Drca, he is Boro.”
      “I’m Flip,” said the larger boy.
      “I’m Roy,” said the other.
      “Okay they sit at bar?” Boro asked Emile.
      Emile was still on the phone to the precinct. He hung up and motioned to Flip and Roy to go ahead. The boys climbed up on stools next to the men.
      “You think corpse we should cover?” said Drca.
      “Why to bother?” Boro said. “Wagon coming.”
      “Did Bad Lands Bill drink here?” Roy asked.
      Emile came over with Cokes for the boys.
      “Not for a while,” he said. “He got laid off a few months back. Last time I saw him was in July.”
      Flip sipped his Coke as he spun around on his stool and looked down at the body. The eyes and mouth were closed.
      “Hey,” Flip said, “weren’t his eyes and mouth open when you carried him in?”
      “Yeah,” said Roy, “his tongue was hangin’ out.”
      Everyone stared at Bad Lands Bill. His skin was not quite so blue.
      “I guess gettin’ warmed up changes the body,” said Flip. “It’s good for him to be inside.”
      “That’s what Midget Fernekes said about himself,” said Emile.
      “Who’s that?” asked Roy.
      “A bank robber grew up in Canaryville,” the bartender said. “He was the first person to blow safes usin’ nitroglycerin. Midget said he learned more about safecrackin’ in the pen than he ever could’ve on the street.”
      Drca and Boro drank in silence. Emile poured them each another shot of Four Sisters, then busied himself at the end of the bar. No other customers came in. Roy and Flip finished their Coca-Colas and sat quietly, too. For some reason it did not seem right to talk a lot with a dead man lying there.
      “The wagon oughta be here by now,” said Emile, who came around from behind the bar, walked over to the front door and looked outside through the small window.
      “It’s a full on blizzard out there,” he said. “Maybe you kids should go on home now, before it gets any worse. Drca and Boro and I can tell the ambulance boys what happened, if they can even get here.”
      “Go,” said Boro. “Drinks on house. Yes, Emile?”
      The bartender nodded.
      “Be careful of starving dogs,” said Drca. “They are hunting in group when weather is bad.”
      “This Chicago,” said Boro, “not Zagreb. Here dogs eat better than people of half of world.”
      Roy and Flip got down from their stools and took one more look at Bad Lands Bill. His skin seemed almost normal now and there was a peaceful expression on his face. Emile opened the door a crack.
      “Quick, boys,” he said, “so the wind don’t blow the snow in.”
      After Flip turned off Anna Ruttar Street to go to his house, Roy bent his head as he trudged forward and thought about packs of hungry wild dogs roaming the streets of Croatian cities and villages attacking kids and old people unable to defend themselves, feasting on stumblebums like Bad Lands Bill, especially if they were already dead. Roy brushed snow from his face. He wondered if Midget Fernekes was really a midget or if he was called that just because he was short. Roy worried that he could end up like Bad Lands Bill or Arne Pedersen, a rummy frozen to death on a sidewalk or in an alley. This was a possibility, he knew, it could happen to any man if enough breaks went against him. Roy tried to keep the snow out of his eyes but it was coming down too fast. He felt as if he were wandering in the clouds only this wasn’t heaven. He was where the dogs could get him.