Sweaty Duane did not consider himself to be a brave person. He got his nickname the first day of 9th grade at Roosevelt High. Duane had not been a high school student for five minutes when he realized everything his uncle told him about a fresh start was wrong. That August morning in 1972, it was a muggy 82 degrees, but that was not the only reason Duane was sweating. He sweat all the time. He would pull his shirts from the clothesline and see the faint demarcations of pit stains like the concentric, waving rings inside the geodes for sale at the flea market. He was a husky kid, as his uncle called him, and he was nervous in general, which did not help at all. So that morning, after waking himself up in time to walk the three miles to school, rummaging his Uncle’s dresser top for 70 cents in lunch money, brushing his teeth and getting to his seat on time, Duane was- to be fair about it- a sloppy mess.
Behind him, teeth full of braces and bread, Tony Laux said, “Whoa! Look at Sweaty Duane! P.E. isn’t until after lunch!” The other kids didn’t need to pile on or even say the word after that. In Duane’s mind, when they spoke his name, the Sweaty was implied. The Sweaty was silent.
Even all these years later, on the corner of 25th and Taft, right in front of Truck City, He thought of himself as Sweaty Duane, and despite the cold wind of the Chicago hawk crawling through his jacket collar Duane was damp as a sweat-sock. He could tell by the posture of the two people ahead on the sidewalk, that one person was not enjoying the conversation. The wind was so strong and cold, that the figure with his back to Duane, could not hear anything with his wool cap pulled down over his ears.
Just as Duane was closing on the pair, a half a dozen strides away still, Wool Cap Guy raised his hand above his head and feigned a punch at the woman. Duane could now clearly see the rounded heft of bosom on the other figure. She flinched and cowered as Cap Guy laughed, then he raised his hand again. Sweaty Duane could tell he was going to hit her this time, something in how the man twisted his back foot as though squishing a bee, and to Duane’s surprise he found himself running towards the man with his back to him, Sweaty Duane’s first hurried steps since his last P.E. class. Then, as though watching himself from the broken streetlight above the scene, he lunged at the man, ramming his shoulder into the small of the other man’s back causing him to bow and warp until his feet separated from the icy sidewalk and he collapsed in pain and bewilderment. The woman, now standing in shock before Duane, her eyes unblinking moons of confusion was a girl Duane knew from childhood by her own unwanted nickname, Black June. In that moment of mutual recognition Black June spoke the only word she had ever said to Sweaty Duane despite their shared decades in Roosevelt Park, “RUN!” And with that, their slow and chafing getaway commenced.
Back at his apartment, the shades pulled, and the door bolted, they hid. When Duane asked who the man was, and why he was going to hit June, she looked him right in the eye and shook her head slowly to say, No, we aren’t talking about that now. She just said she was tired, and asked to use the rest room. She did say, ” I know your name Duane.” He only replied, “You can stay here tonight if you need to” and she then nodded okay, and said, “Thanks, I do.”
Duane knew this did not qualify as a sexual encounter, but nonetheless he felt a tingling emanating from the point of contact between his backside and June’s as she slept deeply beside him as he stared into the darkness. He eased off the bed, jostling, but not waking June and he settled down in the one other room.
He woke, before sunrise. He moved quietly to to the refrigerator, standing before the door to block the light. A half-empty two liter of flat soda, hemorrhoid suppositories in the egg tray, and a jar of syrupy fruit cocktail- together these items were a memorial to his uncle, now gone. He took out the fruit cocktail and checked the sell-by date, July 31, 1983. Going on four years past its prime.
Mango made the roof of his mouth itch like crazy, but he ate it anyway, quietly watching the snow fall outside the grimy window. He knew he was allergic, but he liked the itching. His tongue rasping on the back of his teeth helped him concentrate– two raw welts on either side and his palate tingled. He unconsciously worked his tongue against the itch in time to the chuffing rhythm of the gas furnace.
His uncle spoke exclusively in parable and observation, never addressing Duane directly or speaking in the second person. Dead three years now, of an ill-defined cause his uncle called in his final days; “too many cures, not enough disease,” in reference to all of the medications piling up in the plastic container that sat on the floor alongside his vinyl recliner. Abiraterone Acetate Abitrexate (Methotrexate), Cabazitaxel, Ifosfamide, and a full alphabet of vitamins and Chinese herbs mingled with the pharmaceuticals. Duane watched his uncle wash them down every night with orange soda.
“Do you think any of that stuff is working?” Duane would ask. “A man should always finish what he starts” was his uncle’s reply.
June still slept on his formless bed, the foam mattress pillowing around her edges as she slept on her side, his Green Bay Packers coat wadded around her hands as a pillow and his uncle’s army blanket from Korea draped neatly over her. June insisted on sleeping in the recliner, until Duane gave up and went to bed, and there she fell asleep. He awoke in the night to her squishing around on his mattress trying to get comfortable, but not awaken him. Duane knew neither of them would sleep at all on his spring-less, childhood bed so he spent the night in his uncle’s recliner, just as his uncle slept every night since Duane showed up in that Packer’s coat. His uncle opened the door to him that night and made the statement, “Success is ninety percent perspiration” and stood aside to allow Duane to squeeze past and into his home. After his uncle was gone, and he was by himself, he began sitting in the recliner, the humble thrown now his, the small apartment his kingdom to rule alone.
June was the first woman to ever enter this apartment, let alone spend the night, as far as Duane had ever known.