I was a stranger in the city
Out of town were the people I knew
I had that feeling of self-pity
What to do? What to do? What to do?
The outlook was decidedly blue
But as I walked through the foggy streets alone
It turned out to be the luckiest day I've known*
"A Foggy Day"
Lyrics by Ira &
February 29, 1960
The day was unseasonably warm for February in Chicago. The preceding days had been gray with sleet or white with snow, but today the temperature was an astonishing seventy-five degrees, and the thermometer kept climbing.
It was the 29th of February, an odd day. It was a day that appeared only every four years, and disappeared like it had never existed. Those who were born or died on that day were almost in a limbo, neither here nor there. It was called a day for ‘betwixt and between’, when the fabric between our world and the world of spirits was especially thin, causing one to cross over to the other.
The shop smelled of chocolate and peppermint and dozens of other good things. I loved working here. The shop had been in the family for generations, started up by Great-Granddad Hiram in 1859, and had been in this same building since then, with alterations, of course.
We stocked all kinds of chocolates, both American and imported, and penny novelty candies that the kids loved. Everyone loved the hard candy sticks in a rainbow of flavors: lemon, strawberry, peppermint, sour apple, root beer, blueberry, and more.
I went out for a smoke, keeping an eye on the shop. I didn’t even need a coat, and rolled up my sleeves.
I wandered over to the Biograph. Spartacus was playing. Maybe I’d bring Sally for a show. Ever since meeting her in American History class at Northwestern University, we’d been going out pretty regular.
The Biograph was beautifully-designed, but had seen better days. It was down-at-the-heels, kinda shabby, but a lot of the old movie palaces had been either torn down or were shabby.
I went into the alley, well aware of its history. If you looked real close, you could still see faint bloodstains on the concrete, mostly washed away by the elements but still there.
It was quiet here, almost a cathedral-like stillness, the sounds of traffic muted. The brick walls were crumbling, but the buildings were still in good shape, just rundown. The whole neighborhood could use a face-lift, but it was a lot better than some of Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Dad had been here on July 22, 1934, helping his father close the shop just as Manhattan Melodrama had let out.
He’d seen the Bureau agents gun down John Dillinger.
Suddenly, a gust of cold air washed over me. Shivering, I watched my cigarette go out.
A fog began to roll in from Lake Michigan, cold air probably, pushing its way back into the city.
Uneasy, I returned to the shop.
& & & & & &
I re-stocked the back shelves, an oldies station playing some cool jazz. I kept the volume low, a nice background as I worked.
Mom and Dad paid me a good salary to work part-time, and I was able to pay for my books and part of my tuition. They were paying the rest. They said getting a business degree was a good thing, and they were right. It was always good to have options.
The tiny bells over the door jingled.
“Be right with you.”
I finished stacking the shelf and stepped down the ladder, turning to greet the customer.
“I was a stranger in the city
Out of town were the people I knew”
He was a slender man dressed in a white seersucker suit and white fedora. Prominent cheekbones underscored a sensuous mouth, eyes shadowed by the brim of his fedora. Dark hair was slicked back, and the man appeared to be in his mid-to-late twenties.
“Good afternoon, sir.”
His voice was soft-spoken and carried a strong Southern accent.
“Do you have something in mind, or would you like to look around?”
“I have some preferences.”
“Dark chocolate?” I asked. A lot of people preferred milk chocolate, but I had a feeling that this gentleman might like something a little more exotic.
“The dark chocolate lemon creams, please.”
He was exotic, or not quite what you’d see every day. I frowned slightly. His suit was made of expensive material, but the lapels were too wide, the fedora not quite right.
I also had the feeling I’d seen him before.
“Have you been in Chicago long?”
“I just arrived.” He adjusted his sleeve. “I haven’t been here in many years.”
“I expect you’ll see some changes, though Chicago has kept a lot of the old architecture, saving it from urban renewal.” I carefully filled a gold-painted box with the name of our shop stamped on it.
“Yes, I noticed.” The fog was growing thicker outside the windows. It completely muffled the sounds of traffic. “I’d like some lemon drops, please, and those peanut butter cups.”
“So, are you here on business or pleasure?”
“Both. I have unfinished business, and my pleasure is to see my Beloved again.”
“Has it been long?” I opened a new box for the peanut butter cups.
“Too long,” he said quietly, sadness in his voice.
“I had that feeling of self-pity
What to do? What to do? What to do?”
I looked up but he was gazing down at the display case.
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate these chocolates.”
“Oh, my darlin’ has a sweet tooth. Likes dark and beautiful.”
That could describe either the chocolates or the man himself.
I set a bag on the counter and started filling it with lemon drops.
“Bet you’re excited about seeing her again after so long.”
“I am.” His hands trembled slightly. Poor guy was nervous. “Do you have someone you love, suh?”
I smiled, thinking of Sally. “Yes.”
The eyes were still shadowed by his fedora brim but I felt his gaze on me. His accent grew thicker.
“Don’t waste time and grab your opportunities while you can. Don’t let the one you love slip away because you don’t have the courage to let them know…to hold onto them…”
“The outlook was decidedly blue”
The sadness was almost palpable, and I wished I could help him. Billie Holliday’s sultry voice spun out of the radio, sad yet sweet.
“Things should be better now,” I said hopefully.
“Yes.” His hand rested on the display case, a gold signet ring winking in the overhead light. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, that’s okay.”
A smile quirked his mouth as I caught a glimpse of his eyes: dark and sparkling.
“I have another chance. It’s forever this time.”
He sounded so happy that I couldn’t help but smile.
“Do you have any horehound candy? I’m rather partial to it.”
I frowned. “I’m sorry, sir, we haven’t had that type since the ‘30s, I think.”
“What about Wrigley’s chewing gum? My love is fond of gum.” I produced several packs. “Ah, excellent. I am quite satisfied with the assortment you have most generously provided.”
“Thank you.” I put everything in a large bag and he paid me, and with a quick smile he said, “Thank you again, suh. We are most grateful for these goodies. He’ll be happy to see these chocolates, and, hopefully, me.”
He turned and hesitated, looking out at the fog, which obscured everything by now. He left the shop, the bells jingling, and was swallowed up the fog.
“Moxie…the drink with a punch!” the radio announcer chattered. Weird, because they’d stopped using that jingle for Moxie years ago…
He still had looked familiar…wait a minute!
He’d be happy to see the Southern gentleman?
My jaw dropped. Now, I didn’t just get off the boat, but it isn’t every day you meet a homosexual. Or at least one who openly admitted it.
Intrigued, I left the shop, locking the front door. The fog muffled all the usual noises of cars, horns, even footsteps.
Suddenly, I heard footsteps, but there was no one nearby, the fog playing tricks on the direction of the sound.
A car came out of the fog and I blinked. The shiny black Model T rattled by, the man driving dressed in a red flannel shirt and battered fedora.
It was tough to see but I knew this street by heart. I dashed across, grateful that no car had hit me, and caught my breath, leaning a hand against the wall of the Biograph.
I stared at the wall. The paint wasn’t peeling anymore.
Looking around and up, the marquee was sparkling brightly, a patch of fog obscuring the movie title.
I walked to the alley, seeing my customer, and dimly sad that the man had to meet his lover in an alley.
I felt guilty about following him but my curiosity was too much, trying to focus on something as the fog kissed my skin, soft music dancing around as Billie’s voice crooned,
“But as I walked through the foggy streets alone
It turned out to be the luckiest day I've known”
The fog was swirling around the alley in little eddies, caressing the legs of the man in white. His hand clutched the bag from the shop in a white-knuckled grip as he waited.
“How long I wondered could this thing last
But the age of miracles hadn't passed”
I shivered at a sudden gust of cold air. The fog grew thicker, obscuring most of the alley, though I could still see my customer.
“For suddenly I saw you there”
A man emerged from the fog at the end of the alley, dressed in a white shirt and light-colored slacks. He wore a straw boater and sunglasses, a thin mustache accentuating a handsome face. His sleeves were rolled up, revealing slender arms and a large gold wristwatch.
I wish I could see my customer’s face. The other man smiled, and the tension flowed out of the Southerner, his shoulders relaxing.
“Nice to see ya, Sunshine.”
I could barely hear him, the words almost muffled.
Johnny pulled his lover into an embrace, the bag falling to the ground. Johnny’s face was pained yet joyful, his arms tight around his partner. He rubbed the back of his lover, as if trying to relax him. The Southerner was shaking…with joy or sobs?
The fog shifted. I could still see them but now could hear everything as clearly as if I was standing right next to them.
“I’m so sorry, so sorry…”
“Oh, Mel.” Long fingers stroked dark hair.
When they parted Johnny was smiling. He brushed at what I guessed were tears on Mel’s cheeks.
“I should have done something, should have warned you better…”
“You tried. It just wasn’t you in the cards.” His smile was crooked. “But, darlin’, it’s all right now. We’ve got forever.” He gently kissed his lover on the temple.
Mel sighed in relief, Johnny holding him up.
Another car rattled by. I didn’t have to look to know it was another Model T.
“I got you some gifts.”
Mel reached down and picked up the bag, holding it out.
Johnny smiled like a kid in, well, a candy store, opening the bag, delight on his face.
“Aww, sweetness.” He pulled out the box of lemon creams. Opening the box, he picked out a chocolate and fed it to Mel, who reciprocated.
“Mmm, darlin’, dark and beautiful.” He brushed his lips over his lover’s. “Just like you.”
The kiss quickly grew passionate, the fog swirling around the their bodies until it obscured the two lovers.
“And through foggy Chicago town
The sun was shining upside down”
I stepped back a little, but heard nothing more. Maybe the fog had shifted the sound away.
The fog parted, and no one was there.
I walked deeper into the alley, but the men had disappeared, which sent a chill down my spine. Fog or not, there was no way they could have left that alley in so few seconds.
I ran to the other end that opened up into a maze of alleys behind the buildings. The fog had lifted and I didn’t see a single living soul.
I started to slowly walk back, and bent down to scoop up two chocolates that had fallen to the ground.
Coming out on the sidewalk, I glanced over at the marquee again, seeing the letters drama in a clear gap in the fog.
I sighed. Yep, February 29th was a weird day.
Scooting across the street, I re-entered the shop, depositing the chocolates in the wastebasket.
“Brylcreem…a little dab’ll do ya…”
I tried to process everything as the fog closed in again around the shop.
& & & & & &
The bells over the door jingled, and a cheerful voice said, “Is this a weird day or what?”
“Dad, you don’t know the half of it.”
My father was in shirtsleeves, carrying his jacket over his arm. His thinning hair was glistening with droplets from the fog, his glasses wet. He took them off and wiped them with his handkerchief.
“Not many customers, I expect, eh, Jim?”
“Yeah, just one so far.” I rubbed my face. “He was wearing this old-fashioned suit, all white, and a fedora that was old-style, too. Do you know of some antique car show in town, Dad? Between the clothes and the Model Ts I keep seeing…”
Dad laughed. “Fog’s playin’ tricks on you, boy.”
“I dunno. This guy Mel bought some chocolates and asked about horehound candy and then went over to the Biograph…”
“Wait a minute, son. You said this guy’s name was Mel?”
“He wore a white suit and hat, inquiring about horehound candy?”
“Yeah, he bought lemon drops, too, and said ‘Thank you’ in a real honest-to-goodness Southern drawl…”
Dad put out a hand. “Was he a handsome man with jet-black hair and dark eyes, a little on the thin side?”
“Yeah.” I felt that shiver again. “He went over to the Biograph and met a guy named Johnny in the alley…”
My father went pale. “What did Johnny look like?”
“Slender, a thin mustache, tortoiseshell sunglasses and straw boater, chinos, a white shirt…”
Dad quickly went to the back room. I could hear him rummaging around, then he came back out with a satinwood box inlaid with mother-of-pearl. He opened the box. I’d always loved the smell of cedar.
“On July 22, 1934, a soft-spoken Southern gentleman came into the shop and bought lemon drops and horehound candy. He was dressed in a white suit and fedora, and went back to a car parked outside with another gentleman at the wheel.” He took out an old photograph, tinged with sepia. “He was Special Agent Melvin Purvis.”
I stared at the photograph. Of course! No wonder my customer had looked so familiar. I’d seen this picture years ago.
Grandpa had taken a picture of Melvin Purvis striding away from the Biograph. He had come into the shop asking to use the phone, reimbursing my grandparents for a long-distance call to Washington.
After John Dillinger had been gunned down by Bureau agents.
I remembered the picture Grandpa took of Dillinger’s body, wearing chinos, a white shirt, a straw boater lying a few feet away…
I felt the cold chill go down my spine again as the fog parted just enough to see the movie and actors' names listed on the Biograph’s bright marquee: Manhattan Melodrama, starring Clark Gable and William Powell.
Dad’s eyes were wide as we looked at each other, the fog growing thick again as it swallowed up the Biograph.
& & & & & &
*How long I wondered could this thing last
But the age of miracles hadn't passed
For suddenly I saw you there
And through foggy Chicago town
The sun was shining upside down
Melvin Purvis died on February 29, 1960.