Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Getting Stuck on “The Button”

This is an afterword I wrote about my short story, "The Button," which will appear in another little e-book I'm putting together, Through the Brightening Air. The e-book will also contain the poem "Red Lion in Winter" and "Last One Close the Door." What with the Red Lion building finally being torn down, and the passing of Andrea Dubnick, this has all become much more contemporary than I thought it would be when I started.

I first conceived of “The Button” as a kind of performance piece disguised as a short story. It came to me on one of those rainy, foggy nights depicted in the beginning of the story. The idea, as I saw it, was to tell a story that in some way encompasses the venue, The Red Lion Pub, as well as some of my own personal memories of hanging around and about on that stretch of Lincoln Avenue in 1969 and the early 1970s. It was to be like a ghost story you tell when you’re in an old place with a haunted history. And at the end of the story, you throw in a line like, “And sometimes, on certain nights, you can still see the Headless Brakeman, swinging his lantern, whistling in the pelting rain … ” Then someone way back in the room starts to whistle, and everyone screams.

At least that was the idea.

I wrote the story in haste, trying to complete it for a reading I was scheduled to do at the Red Lion – the scene of the crime, so to say. I grew up with the Twilight Tales reading series, up on the second floor of the pub. Twilight Tales and I go back a long way. That was where I first read “The Measure of All Things.” It was down in the bar where Marty Mundt said to me, “You know, that character, Axel, the dinosaur who won’t stop saying, ‘Hiya!’ – you should do something more with that character.” I had already been thinking of writing another saur story, with Axel at the center.

Andrea Dubnick and Tina Jens, the two movers-and-shakers that made Twilight Tales move-and-shake in those days, also encouraged me to write more about the saurs, Axel in particular. They went to the extent of greeting me with “Hiya!” every time they saw me.

Tina still does.

Marty’s enthusiasm sealed the deal. I wrote “Bronte’s Egg,” and then “In Tibor’s Cardboard Castle,” and I even got a lick in of “Orfy” as a work in progress on two occasions before the pub closed its doors in 2007.

The reading series had incredible staying power, especially for all the years (over a decade, if I’m not mistaken) it was held at the Red Lion. Tina Jens and her many minions worked hard to keep it going. Many readers of top caliber read there: Gene Wolfe and Algis Budrys at the top of that list, at least for me. Many writers got their start there, not only learning how to fine-tune their writing but how to fine-tune their reading of their writing.

We learned to play the room.

I’ve seen big-time writers, Hugo winners, read into their pockets with muttering, racing voices, like a reading was an endurance race. At Twilight Tales, you had an audience, and you learned to read to them. Some nights the audience was tiny. Some nights they filled the second floor all the way back to the upstairs bar.

On summer nights there was the patio in the back, with the big tree that grew right through the floorboards. According to Twilight Tales’ own book, Tales From the Red Lion, in some background contributed by writer/director/all-around-talent Lawrence Santoro, it was under that tree that Chicago’s Shakespeare Rep Company got their start with a production of The Tempest. With the right set of readers on the right night, that patio would be filled as well.

I read at all those incarnations and set-ups upstairs at the Red Lion. The ones I liked best were inside, with the “stage” set against a group of windows in the back of the place. The audience would sit at tables in the room. Someone would screw a high-power light into the ceiling to help the reader be seen (and for the reader to see what she or he was reading). If you were reading, looking straight out into the audience, to your right would be the wall that came against the wall of the building next door – 2440 North Lincoln Avenue. The same building mentioned in “The Button.”

Several times I wondered if, in a world if infinite possibilities, it would be possible to commingle the ghosts of the building next door with the ghosts of the Red Lion.

Yes, the Red Lion had a great history of being haunted, and people I knew who would never confess to a belief in ghosts (and what does it mean to “believe” in ghosts anyway?) said they experienced very odd, strange disturbing feelings and sensations up on that second floor. You can read more about it in Tales From the Red Lion. What’s important is that I knew about the ghosts – everyone knew about the ghosts, alleged or real.

Mate this knowledge with the crazy idea that ghosts may be our experiences of time travelers, and you see what I might have been getting at with “The Button.”


When one works at the “art” of fiction, one sometimes wonders if it’s possible to break the wall between fiction and non-fiction that doesn’t fit the simple category of “lies.” We get plenty of examples of the latter every day in our media: in advertising, in advertising that tries to pass itself off as journalism, in corporate communications, in marketing – you know the drill.

It’s something else I’m talking about, something more akin to alchemy. It doesn’t call for the “willing suspension of disbelief,” but for the willing suspension of the rules of reality – or the suggestion of it. The idea, figuratively or literally, is to make a story that becomes real – or at least “real,” or in Philip Dick’s terminology, “apparently real.” When one thinks of it that way it seems Borgesian – “The Circular Ruins” revisited.

In other words, I wanted to see if I could make myself, and an audience, hear Rad Tate and Gideon Faust kick out the jams next door.

Well, I had my chance, and I blew it.

I had the venue. I had the gig. I had the story – mostly.

It was all in my head, and I wrote at a furious pace to make the deadline.

At the last minute, when I tried to print the story, it wouldn’t print. The document got locked up. I tried to retrieve the raw copy from the document and transfer it to an email, which I could send to my office and print out there.

It wouldn’t print out there. The email wouldn’t even open.

Every effort I made to retrieve and transfer my story hit a brick wall, lined with concrete and reinforced with titanium.

The thought occurred to me that I shouldn’t try to read the story, but tell it – I said I wanted it to be like a performance piece after all.

I chickened out. I read an awful piece I cobbled together at the last minute because I didn’t want to read anything I’d already read there. More’s the pity. The crowd was right. The moment was right. Even the weather was right – it was a tad chilly, and damp, and foggy, just like the weather described in “The Button.”

But I wasn’t ready to push myself and to trust myself to do the job of being a storyteller.

There was a thing I used to tell my short story students when they seemed to be caught and struggling in the mechanics of language and structure and their own expectations of what they should do: I’d say, or scribble on the board, or on their handed-in assignments, “Trust the story.” In other words, let the story lead the way; you follow.

Alas, I couldn’t follow my own advice that night, and I crashed. Crashed and burned.

It would be simple, and simplistic, to blame it on the ghosts.

You can always blame it on the ghosts.

It took me a while to return to the story. When I heard that Tina Jens was planning a new edition of Tales From the Red Lion, I told myself that this was the moment to get it down – to “do the thing” I hadn’t been able to complete before. I started the story from scratch, since I had nothing more than the notes I’d salvaged from my preliminary work. I made the deadline, and what you read here are the results of my walk down Lincoln Avenue one chilly, foggy night, when I thought I could see the rotating beacon atop the “Playboy Building” (as it was known in 1969), and I felt all the places that once stood on the street still stood there. Past and present and future were all there, intermingled.


I write this in the autumn of 2013. Since I first conceived the story, more of what I remember from days past has disappeared – physically.

A month or two ago, the building that housed the Red Lion was finally torn down. My friend, the author Wayne Allen Sallee, posted the photos he took of the hole in the ground where the Red Lion once stood.

Last month, Andrea Dubnick, who hosted many evenings of the Twilight Tales reading series and edited so many of the chapbooks that came out of that series, passed away.

And Delphyne Woods, a person who embodied “The Sixties” more than anyone else I ever knew, was found dead in her apartment in September. And she may have been dead for more than a week before she was discovered.

We live in a world of ghosts, but there’s nothing to be afraid of. Sometimes we meet the ghosts and sometimes the ghosts meet us.

And sometimes we are the ghosts.


Oh yes, one more thing – about that button.

The button referred to in the story was one with the fist drawn and designed by Frank Cieciorka. It was a pen and ink line drawing, or a woodcut, very bold and very distinct. Google the name and you’ll find an image. It’s iconic. Mr. Cieciorka, alas, died in 2008, another ghost in a world of ghosts.

Like the narrator of the story, I bought that button in the little head shop that resided in the same building that later became the Red Lion. That button got me into a lot of trouble. I had an Algebra teacher who was a fanatical Christian, who demanded I take the button off in her class.

And at the event at the Aragon on December 29, 1969, mentioned in the story, I had to chase that button down. A guy I met had taken it off my shirt and, after inspecting it, put it on his own shirt and headed out of the ballroom. A joke. Hah-hah. I could have let him walk away with it (hey, weren’t we not supposed to be into possessions, then?), but I didn’t. I wasn’t sure why, but I liked that button and I knew it was important that I retrieve it from the casual acquaintance (who was probably one of those Joe Cool jerks, so impressed with his own slickness, he thought he could walk around and take what he wanted – a carte blanche socialist. In those days, in Chicago, most socialists were carte blanche socialists, I soon discovered).

Later, I put the button on my guitar strap, along with a dozen other buttons I’d gathered over the heyday (What Panther, Black Panther, Yippie!, the omega, the peace sign, a shiny little bug-shaped button that resembled a roach. The button stayed put for over thirty-five years, but I took it off the guitar strap when I wanted to use it as a prop for my reading/performance piece.

Almost immediately, I lost it.

It slipped it into a pocket, or under a stack of junk. It re-emerged after my fiasco at the Red Lion and since then I have lost it and rediscovered it several times.

It used to worry me – losing my “time machine,” but I don’t worry much about it anymore. It’s a time machine, as I said, and as such it’s probably getting around, returning to the scene of many crimes and a few triumphs. And wherever it’s gone to, it’s probably having some amazing adventures. But I have no doubt I’ll see it again.

It’s probably not true to say that nothing is ever lost, or that nothing ever completely goes away, but I can’t quite give up the old habit of hoping. The button is in the world – hope is alive.

Thank you, Frank Cieciorka. Thank you, Andrea. Thank you, Delphyne.

Thank you all.