It took a month of unread letters and unreturned phone calls to convince Dad to go with me to the green building on Cermak and ask after Vlado. On the phone, the landlord Anton intimated that he hadn’t been sure whom to call when my brother the tenant stopped cutting rent checks. When we arrived on the west side to find out what became of my brother the disappearance, Anton was waiting in the parking lot smoking cigarettes. "Pretty quiet guy,” he said as he turned the key and opened the door to unit 11. “Only one thing happen, really. He and dievushka yell so I call police.” He pushed the door open and I followed Dad into the studio apartment.
The ceiling fan was moving on low speed, the light soft, as if we might find my brother snoozing on the couch. He had achieved a kind of lived-in feng shui that you might look for in a pair of jeans: red pillowcases against a checkered, black and brown duvet; black and white photography from the family archives hanging on the wall; books and letters on the coffee table hinting friends and lovers made during two years spent in Chicago. I looked at Dad as he turned to look at Anton.
“Ah,” said the landlord. “Please excuse. Just return key when you finished.”
Dad busied himself with a note he had found on the counter and I looked to the bookshelves where my brother kept his novels organized in alphabetical order. A Heller hardcover stuck out like the switch on a blown fuse. A Steinbeck paperback gathered dust in the shadow cast by a Tolstoy and Turgenev standing tall in the morning light coming in from the street-side window. I was thinking of reaching for one when Dad tapped my arm. He handed me the paper and moved into the kitchen without a word.
I looked at the to-do list written in my brother’s disorderly shorthand. All but the last item were neatly struck through with a black, felt-tip pen:
1. pay rent 2. ticket, union station 3. call marienka 4. envelopes/stamps 5. salvation army 6. snacks and drink 7. tell mama
When I looked up Dad was standing in the kitchen doorway holding a can of beer. He cracked it and took a sip as he gave a final look around Vlado’s place, the hints of clutter among scattered attempts at order. He paused when his eyes reached the black and white photographs hanging on the far wall above Vlado’s reading chair, put down the beer.
"Alright," he said. "Let's go."
Two weeks passed before I came home from the shop and found a letter in my mailbox. The return address read St. Paul, the enclosed pages composed on a vintage typewriter. Vlado. He loved his Signature 510, the way the oil smell stayed with it long after his meticulous restoration project a couple years back. He even had the original turquoise carrying case, the absence of which I somehow failed to notice when Dad and I had made our cursory sweep of unit 11. At that point the only mystery was my brother’s destination, anyway. We knew not to be preoccupied with the intent and outcome of Vlado’s peregrinations, or with what he happened to take with him on a given flight. Still I wondered as I sat down and opened the letter.
Couldn't make it work in the Windy City. I kept running into old friends and getting into the same trouble. I've got a lead in Minnesota and I'm going for it. I swear the typewriter is sitting shotgun in my Buick. I didn’t leave myself any space for a change of heart this time. Ten thousand lakes. Take whatever you want from my studio and give the rest away. Your discretion is one of the few I trust. The jury is still out on my own, it seems. Rent is paid up, though. The pictures of mom on the east wall are originals from Czechoslovakia, summer of ‘68 right before she emigrated. And here we are. There is a letter written for her too. I promise. I just have to pay for the postage.
P.S. Happy Birthday. Go live a little more than you normally would. Maybe have a drink or two. I'll send a pittance once I sell my first story. Tell Dad. And tell Anton to go fuck himself.
Story Song: "The Mask" by Blueprint