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.
When Rich Lyons was a little boy, he learned of the magic from an old, cockeyed, Captain Hook–looking magician. The old man sat alone at a table for two outside a neighborhood bar every summer day, all day, always with a glass of twinkling whiskey. He said the twinkle had once been in his eye, but had blown out one windy day and splashed right into the whiskey. Rich liked how the twinkle twinkled in the whiskey. He liked it so much, he asked the old man if he could have it. The man told Rich he didn’t need it, because he already had a twinkle of his own, and besides, that particular twinkling whiskey tasted like shit, worse than Malört1, if that’s possible.
“You be careful,” the old man warned, “because in the city of wind, a twinkle may blow out. The wind here, it twirls and sings like a music-box ballerina. It plays tricks and tells stories like an old-man magician. Like me, like this …”
And so, the old man performed tricks for Rich and regaled him with city folklore and fantasy. He said the Great Chicago Fire was arson, started by a fire-breathing dragon from the Fulton River District who was fed up with the cold winters. He said the Chicago River started flowing backward when a giant sea serpent sneezed so powerfully, it changed the direction of the current. He said the sky was purple (not black) above the city because a wicked witch had stolen all the black for her cats and bats and witch hats.
Rich’s favorite story was one about the L trains, and how each had come to be named for a color. The old man said the colors arrived when the first skyscrapers did. Before then, all the trains were the same dull brown. On the day the first skyscraper went up, a rainbow, unused to encountering buildings so high in the sky, accidentally crashed into it. When the rainbow crashed, each of its individual colors went splattering in all directions. Some landed on the L trains and stained them. The only train to miss a color was the Brown Line, because, the old man said, it was offline for repairs.
The old man also said there was one line, a secret line, that got a splash of lavender.
One day, Rich asked the old man if he could use his magic to tell fortunes. The old man said, well, hell, of course he could, it was a matter of simple city magic. Rich asked if he might hear his own fortune. He wanted to know what he would be when he grew up.
The old man told Rich there wasn’t much he wouldn’t be when he grew up. He would be a father, a husband, an uncle, a brother, a friend. He would be a ghost in the graveyard. He would be a vice president of something. He would be a pisser in the pancake batter. He would be a reveler-adventurer. He would be a hider and seeker. He would be a rocket man. A businessman.
And, he would be a rich man.
1 Disgusting alcoholic spirit, occupied by the evil spirit of a bootlegger, who was bootlegged himself. Available only in Chicago.
Ch. 3 The Brown Line to Auschwitz (long excerpt)
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