Warning: Content may be deemed offensive by Polish Indians, vice presidents of something, my wife, Finbar Finnegan's wife, LinkedIn, little kids who think this book is for little kids, Thumbelina, Brown Liners, mermaids, and the wind.
Growing up and getting trapped in adult life is something that most people eventually face, but while reading The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan, a charming and magical book by Steve Wiley, it is almost possible to forget about the inexorable progress of time. With a main character who is teetering on the edge of forgetting about magic forever, this novel is a touching and thought-provoking ride through nostalgia, memory and the promises of youth. Wiley's sharp, tongue-in-cheek style of writing makes the pages fly and the Chicago skyline makes a stunning backdrop for this mystical romp.
In Chicago, a secret L train runs through the mythical East Side of the city. On that train, you’ll find a house-cat conductor, an alcoholic elf, a queen of the last city farm, the most curious wind, and an exceptional girl by the name of Francesca Finnegan.
When we first encounter Richard K. Lyons, he is a man who has long forgotten the one night, when he was still a boy called Rich, when Francesca invited him aboard the secret L for an adventure through the East Side. The night was a mad epic, complete with gravity-defying first kisses, mermaid overdoses, and princess rescues. Unfortunately for Rich, the night ended like one of those elusive dreams forgotten the moment you wake. Now, Rich is all grown up and out of childish adventures, an adult whose life is on the verge of ruin. It will take the rediscovery of his exploits with Francesca, and a reacquaintance with the boy he once was, to save him.
Half of the proceeds from this book are donated to Chicago Public Schools. For more information, visit fairytalechicago.com.
It was an ordinarily wretched day at the office. In the morning, Richard prepared for an important afternoon sales meeting with a prospect of his, Goldman Sachs. The deal with Goldman was a big deal. In the meeting, he would recommend a reduction in units through an investment in technology, which would lead to greater overall profitability, accountability, and of course flexibility. Should Goldman object, he would pull other abilities out of his ass. The reduction in units was key. That meant the elimination of employees, of cost. Profitability! Huge improvement in the bottom line. The head-count reduction alone would make the business case. Return on investment? Yes, sir, vice chairman, sir. Our preliminary, high-level study shows 375 percent, at least. That’s a conservative estimate, by the way. Hamiltonian conservative. Goldman has low-hanging fruit everywhere. More figures to come in our deeper-dive analysis, set for the next phase. Don’t forget adaptability. And scalability! Include terminal value and the tax component in our calculations and we can double that return on investment. Yes, double. Thanks, well, you’ve gotta think outside the box on this particular subject, vice chairman. Sign here. No, thank you. Looking forward to working with your team. In the meantime, may I suggest a drinkability? Did I say that? Haha hehe! Ha. Long week. Great, thanks again. You have a fine weekend as well. Weather looking brisk. All hands on deck next week! Great. Just great.
Throughout the meeting, fantasies of suicide played out in Richard’s head. Luckily for him, the meeting ended early, and the day was nearly over. He was happy to see it was happy hour. Just in time. He could feel his fingers shaking and the delirium tremens coming on. Time for the Friday call to the wife, insinuating he would be home extremely late, if at all.
“Hi, honey. Yes I’ll be home after I grab a drink or two at Stocks and Blondes no I won’t be late I’ll catch an early train home I promise oh and did I mention we can get that Downton Abbey kitchen you wanted no well we can get that kitchen it will look beautiful just like in that godforsaken show yes tell Andy I love him no I won’t drink too much wait Andy did what in preschool fuck me we’ll talk about it when I get home goodbye no I will not be late Jesus holy fucking Christ calm yourself woman I’ll only have a couple drinks no late nights I won’t be pissed as anything tonight but don’t wait up I’ve been working all goddamn week I’m thirsty as Moses wandering the Sahara fucking desert yes you heard me.
“Sahara. Fucking. Desert.”
Let the night’s adventure begin!
Richard planned to walk from his office in the financial district across the river to catch a Red Line north to a bar, where he would get dangerously drunk. He’d then either take the train home or sleep with a certain intern, in which case he would cab home at an extremely late hour. He’d rather not return home in the event he slept with the intern, but lately he’d been on the thinnest of ice with his wife. He worried his wife would suddenly leave him for her cardiotennis instructor, or report him missing to the affluent police. The last time a Richard Lyons missing-person report was filed, the affluent police had suggested to his wife that he was cheating on her. Not good. The officer had said they got these calls from wives in the neighborhood all the time. “How dare they!” Richard gasped to his wife when he returned home the next morning, stinking a strange stink, like vodka perfume.
Richard set forth along the Michigan Avenue tourist route north across the river, observing his surroundings with an uncommon interest for someone so familiar with the city. He passed over the backward-flowing river, thinking to himself how peculiar a backward-flowing river was. He walked by a monument honoring the victims of the Battle of Fort Dearborn, then another, honoring victims of the Great Chicago Fire. Toward the lake, he saw the Navy Pier Ferris wheel circling in the last light of the setting sun. He tried to, but couldn’t, remember the last time he’d ridden a Ferris wheel. A marquee advertised a Smashing Pumpkins concert at the Aragon Ballroom, then an agricultural-equipment trade show at McCormick Place. The agricultural show made Richard wonder when there had last been an actual, operational farm within city limits. Had to have been a hundred years. He was sure not to make eye contact with a homeless man collecting change within an empty bottle of limoncello. He did, for some reason, accept a green flyer advertising a show at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, from a girl in green. He started to sweat as he walked. The temperature had risen, unexpectedly, at least twenty degrees since the morning. His heavy coat was suffocating him.
Near his Red Line destination, Richard noticed with suicidal pleasure a “Caution: Falling Ice” sign. Hundreds of such signs littered the downtown from November to April, warning pedestrians of the potential for death-by-crushing. The signs were a huge middle finger from the property management companies to the rest of the world—an announcement from the mustache-twirling chief legal counsel, “We are not liable for your death by falling ice.” Cue evil laugh.
Richard was attracted to the “Falling Ice” signs. He walked toward them, danced around them, smoked underneath them. They were like little holy shrines for him. Life insurance is tax-free, he thought. Kid doesn’t need a father. I sure didn’t. Then again, here I am standing in the middle of the city waiting to get crushed to death by falling ice. Touché. Lightning would be a more likely death. Will go out for a long walk during a thunderstorm in springtime. Write that down. With metal car keys in headband. Does life insurance cover suicides? Think so, but only after two years. When did I buy that policy?
Richard stopped by the “Falling Ice” sign. He looked up hopefully for a microwave-size iceberg, squinting at the rooftop’s edge, but found none. Unfortunate. No reason to stay long. It was getting late, and he was thirsty. Golden Goldman victory hops awaited.
As he walked, he read three texts he’d received in a row from the friend he was to meet at the bar. Wherefore art thou, King Richard? The white queen is frisky From the red whisky :)
The texts made Richard’s heart jump. The white queen of course meant cocaine, and red whiskey meant red whiskey. Hurray! He hurried on until he saw another “Falling Ice” sign ahead in his path. Hurray again! Richard approached. There, leaning against the sign, was a tiny homeless girl, not three feet high, wearing a crown of gleaming red-leaf skeletons. She held a smaller cardboard sign, which read:
qarter for a farry tail
The girl had nothing with her but a plastic cup filled with change and a wooden pan flute. She looked familiar, but Richard couldn’t place her. The familiarity was distant. He sensed he’d known the girl when he was a boy. He wondered how that could be possible, when she looked to be just a girl herself.
Richard was intrigued by the “Falling Ice” sign and by the strangely familiar fairy-tale salesgirl. He’d once liked a fairy tale. Hadn’t he? Hard to remember that far back. He decided he’d pay for a fairy tale. As a bonus he might get crushed to death by falling ice while he waited under the sign, listening.
He put a ten-dollar bill into the girl’s plastic-cup cash register.
The girl gave Richard a look of sarcastic surprise. Her eyes were intelligent and looked older than the rest of her. “Mister, ten whole dollars will buy you a different sort of fairy tale! For that much, if you like, I can make up a fairy tale of you, just for you. Would that suit you, mister?”
“The fairy tale of me? Ha! Have at it, by all means.” Richard laughed, but it was a nervous laugh.
The girl started without so much as the bat of a lash over her revelator eyes.
A poor boy grew up and into a fine specimen of a businessman. One night, his wife said he would be pissed as lord off his fizzy cross of gold, and she was right, he would be pissed, even though he promised her he would not. The winter wind blew him home with the storm at some ungodly hour of the night, so drenched in Chanel No. 5 you would have guessed it was the flavor of the snow bucketing down. His wife went mad waiting for him. He’d crossed the line one time too many, she said to herself, but she’d said that many times before. Later that night, he snuck out of their bed, and his wife thought, sneaky devil, always sneaking around. His wife searched the house for him. She found him in his son’s room. His wife couldn’t imagine the boy ending up like his lying daddy, but he would. Squinting through the keyhole, she couldn’t see anything until a white flash of winter lightning exposed them. Her husband was standing near the window with the boy’s Spider-Man pajamas knotted about him like red ivy. The boy wore his father’s fancy necktie around his head like a crown. They were playing and dancing. They giggled together, “God save the bachelors, the bachelors of finance. They’ve spent all their gold on golden underpants.” The two danced around the room, and the wife wished to be with them. She walked in and asked if she might share in the dance. The three danced, one last dance.
“That is your own personal fairy tale, mister. Thank you kindly for your business.”
Richard started sweating again, which was strange, because he felt naked. He knew the story. The story was most definitely his. It was a typical Friday night, maybe that very Friday night. His head started to spin. He pissed his pants a bit. He stood there, staring at the girl, as if he should defend himself. But he couldn’t think of any defense, so he just stared, and as he stared, she emerged again as a memory from his childhood.
“Thanks, uh, ah, eh … thanks.” Richard stuttered nervously. “You, um, look familiar. I, I … I think we’ve met?”
The girl stared back at Richard, turning her head sideways in thought, as if she were trying to remember him.
“Maybe we have met. Did you ever believe in magic?”
As a boy, Richard had thought the city was made of magic. The old-man magician had told him so. He’d believed that mermaids swam within Buckingham Fountain. He’d dreamed of water fairies dancing after dark on the backward-flowing river. He’d been scared of the spirits of old Fort Dearborn, who haunted the high-rises built on their graves. An oracle had seen into the future at the northwest corner of North and Western. Rich had ridden the L as if it were a dragon drenched in pixie dust, set to soar over the lake and along the coast. There’d been magic everywhere then.
But that was then, when he was a boy. As a man, spirits were drunk and not dreamed. He snorted pixie dust, and while it made him high, he could never truly fly. The only Oracle he knew was a software corporation he’d once consulted for. Dragon was a text-to-speech mobile assistant app. Mermaids were mythology. The city was all steel and asphalt. And magic was something only children believed in, not Richard.
Richard believed in nothing.
He looked to the sky, not for falling ice, but for the place the magic had been relegated. Dim shafts of red light glowed within the pillars of western horizon between the skyscrapers, reminding him the sun had set not long ago. The moon shone down from above white stars, which were indistinguishable from airplane headlights, twirling together above the afterglow. It was the moment between afternoon and evening when the moon and sun swapped ownership of the sky. Twilight.
“What is your name, girl?” Richard asked. “Will you at least tell me that much?”
“I’ll tell you,” she said, smiling, “but only if you perform a magic trick for me.”
Magic trick. Right. Without thinking, Richard pulled a 24-karat-gold fountain pen from his jacket. The pen had once been sacred to Richard. It had been awarded to him when he was promoted to vice president of something by a senior vice president and group president. He usually kept it in a tiny frame in his office. How it had ended up in his jacket, he couldn’t say. But he had to make magic with it.
Richard scribbled a large “M” on the “Falling Ice” sign. The sign now read:
Caution: Falling MIce
A bow from Richard and applause from the girl.
“You’re mad as the old king. Yes, you are. Total madman!” the girl laughed, pleased at the trick.
Richard bowed again. “Now, live up to your end of the bargain. Tell me your name.”
“It’s Piper. But you wouldn’t remember my name, would you? We’ve met once before, but that was when you were someone else entirely, and we were entirely somewhere else. And anyway, a dandelion is a pretty flower to a boy, but no more than a pesky weed to a man. Your life and everything in it, even this city, it’s all become a tangled patch of weeds. Hasn’t it?”
“Piper, Piper …” Richard whispered under his breath. He was getting close.
The girl looked up at him, eyebrows raised, guessing his thoughts. “Tell you what. Throw that stupid-ass golden pen into the river as far as you can, and if you throw it far enough, I’ll tell you exactly how it is you think you know me.”
Fine. Richard took the golden pen from his pocket, crow-hopped, and flung it into the far depths of the river like a champion golden-pen javelinist. Problem was, it had been such a long time since he’d crow-hopped. He’d lost all his crow-hopping ability. His weak knees buckled under his fat beer belly. He fell squarely onto his back, striking his head against the sharp edge of a sewer cap.
As Richard lay on the sidewalk in a daze, the mechanical clatter of the city quieted, and he heard only a whistle from the little girl’s flute. She played him a familiar song, one of those songs that carries with it the remembrance of some great event. The song penetrated a dark, hidden corner of Richard’s mind like a light from the past, helping him to remember. Richard opened his eyes and stared up from the ground at the twilight. He saw a girl in a white dress sailing through the sky. It was the same girl he’d seen during that college adventure, soaring among the dark funnel clouds, her blonde hair like the tail of a kite.
He remembered. She was a character within a boyish adventure he’d had long ago, a different adventure than the sort he’d grown accustomed to. It had been the most peculiar adventure, with kings, queens, ghosts, cowboys, Indians, elves, more. And there had been a girl.
No, not the flying girl. Another girl.
Richard closed his eyes again as he lay on the sidewalk. The lovely song tingled his ears. And as it played, he remembered all he’d forgotten.
Steve is a father, husband, uncle, brother, friend, and purveyor of fairy stories. He grew up in and around Chicagoland, where he still lives with his wife and two kids. He has been published in an array of strange and serious places, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., to Crannóg magazine in Galway, Ireland. The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan is his first book. He has an undergraduate degree in something he has forgotten from Illinois State University and a graduate degree in something equally forgotten from DePaul University. Steve once passionately kissed a bronze seahorse in the middle of Buckingham Fountain.
Seriously, he did.