On a sizzling Monday afternoon in July, Jewel Heiss was serving a ticket on a convenience store owner on Walton Street near Michigan Avenue, watching the smog over Lake Shore Drive turn pink, and trying to stake out The Drake Hotel across the street at the same time. Her boss had sent her to watch his wife, who also happened to be her best friend.
The Swiftymart owner whined, “Every time you come here, you ticket me. This is persecution. I’m gonna call the city.” He led her out the front door, looking over his shoulder at his Gold Coast customers paying too much for sliced cheese.
The guilty ones always attacked.
Jewel smiled sunnily. “Every time, your scale still isn’t fixed. Fix it and keep it fixed.”
Sweltering in her polyester pantsuit, she hoped the pink stuff would abate before she had to get on the Drive. The pink was one problem da mayor’s admirable anti-magic Hinky Policy hadn’t been able to wish away.
The Swiftymart owner sweated and lit a cigarette, the dumb-ass. She backed away. Sure enough, a pigeon swooped down out of nowhere and snatched the lighted cig off his face. The store owner screamed, “I hate birds!”
“Look, there’s one!” A gaggle of tourists aimed cell phones and cameras at the pigeon. “They really do smoke! That’s so cool! Man, Chicago is seriously—”
Mindful of Policy, Jewel spoke up. “They don’t really smoke, you know. They just eat the tobacco.”
They all watched the pigeon carry the cigarette to the gutter.
Stakeout was not Jewel’s bag. Stakeout was for cops. An investigator for the Chicago Department of Consumer Services, she rated a badge but no gun. The scariest things in her arsenal were a clipboard and thick book of tickets.
She tore off a ticket now and handed it to the Swiftymart owner. “That scale is condemned. If you’re found guilty, it could be a five-hundred-dollar fine. Get the scale fixed and you can call an inspector out to re-verify it.”
“My customers don’t complain.” He backed into the shelter of his store doorway and lit another cigarette, cupping his hands around it this time.
“Sir, your store is a repeat offender. You know it can be worse.” In her small way, Jewel made the world a more decent place.
“Are you always this cheerful?” he said with loathing.
“Yep.” Smiling down into his weaselly little eyes from five-foot-eleven she said, “Fix it.”
“Oh, look, it’s trying to pick up the filter end!”
The Swiftymart owner sent her a resentful look and mooched back into his store.
Jewel turned to the least fun part of her job, administering The Policy. “It is not smoking. It wants the filter for nesting materials.”
“Omigod, it just stole that guy’s cigarette,” said another tourist who was slow to catch up.
The pink stuff over the Drive had thickened. Something out there caught Jewel’s eye, a streak of iridescence over the smog. Groovy. Something new she wasn’t allowed to talk about.
“Pigeons don’t smoke,” she said, quoting lame Policy guidelines. “They’re attracted to additives in the cigarette paper.”
“No, it’s trying to smoke.”
The iridescence formed a teardrop shape and then suddenly shrank, as if something were sucking it down into the pink smog that hung over the expressway.
“That pigeon is smoking! Wow! Get a picture of that!”
Jewel was about to deny again, but even she could see that the pigeon had the filter end in its beak and seemed to be puffing away merrily. Another pigeon waddled over to it and stuck its pointed head into the cloud of second-hand smoke. She sighed.
Just then her quarry emerged from The Drake and wobbled languidly toward a cab. Nina looked fucked and happy. Jewel’s heart sank.
Her best friend was guilty as hell. Ed would blow a blood vessel.
She plunged across traffic. “Nina, wait up!”
Nina Neccio’s trim figure jerked around, her handbag flailing guiltily. “Don’t scare me like that!”
“Going north? I’ll share.” Jewel hated the suspicious look Nina shot her. This was going to be awful. Nina’s hair had a flat spot on the back. Pillow head. Oh God. “I need a drink,” Jewel said truthfully. It wasn’t even two yet, but she was stressed to the max.
“I’ll buy you one,” Nina said in her gravelly voice. She was wearing tan fuck-me heels, a little beige knit suit over her size-two chassis, and no lipstick for once. Kissed it off? Jewel wondered.
Nina towed Jewel into the Coq d’Or on the ground floor of The Drake. When they were seated in front of two tall margaritas, she looked resentfully at Jewel. “Ed sent you.”
“I knew it. I knew that sonofabitch couldn’t let me have some fun. What does he think, I wanna stay home and make lasagna for the rest of my life?”
“You’re having an affair. My best friend is screwing around.”
“I am not. Do you think I can smoke in here?” Nina craned her neck after the waiter and lit up. “I am totally not.” Her hands moved jerkily. Her dark expressive eyes looked everywhere except at Jewel.
“Bull.” This was icky. Oh, Ed, can’t you fix your own marriage? “You are.”
Nina blew smoke. “Not.”
“Ed found the credit card charges.” You had to persist with Nina. She was as slippery as pup shit and capable of out-shouting Jewel with one vocal chord. “Three hundred and fifty dollars each?”
“I am not having an affair.”
Jewel pushed. “Do you want him to find out?” Was this the North Shore wife’s buildup to divorce—run up a huge credit card debt and then file? She gazed sorrowfully at her friend. “I love your lasagna. I love your kids. What happens to Sunday dinner?” She shook her head. “Oh, Nina.”
Nina sucked in smoke. “He’s my sex therapist.”
Jewel tossed a hand. “Quibble.”
The waiter showed up with fresh margaritas. Nina held the cigarette down below the table edge and flirted with her eyes at him.
“Ash tray, madam?” he said pointedly, setting one next to her margarita.
“Nice butt,” Nina said, stunning Jewel, bringing the cigarette up and dragging again.
The waiter smiled and left, and Nina craned her neck after him. She said, “I have never seen Clay with his clothes off.” Jewel’s certainty was shaken. “Now, the hunk in the bed, that’s another story. But I think you might argue on my side, if you were there.”
Ed should have come. “No wonder you’ve got new spring in your step. Is this why you’ve been losing weight?
“This is the truth. I go in there, I have a drink with Clay, our clothes are on. He’s not my lover, I swear it. He’s my sex therapist.”
For five years Nina had effortlessly pushed Jewel’s buttons and mothered her and driven her crazy, girl-talked her through homesickness, lovesickness, shopping crises, and guy crises. Jewel didn’t handle Nina. Nina handled Jewel.
“Tell me you’re not having sex,” Jewel begged.
“I’ve never seen the other guy either.” Okay, now we come to it. “For all I know, I made him up in a dream. It’s the truth. I can’t lie to you. It’s the plain truth.”
Jewel wanted to say, Ed’s hurt, but that would get her farther into the middle. “I am so disappointed in you.”
That should have signaled the beginning of a fight. But Nina just squinted at her and smoked. “I like your makeup today. Did I buy that for you?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“It wouldn’t hurt you to try this, you know.”
Jewel rolled her eyes.
“You haven’t had a boyfriend in six months. For you that’s an emergency.” Nina tapped ash into her empty margarita glass. “I worried about you when you were dating that creep, the one who liked to choke you during sex. Before that it was whosis, did it in restaurants. For screwing in restaurants you can get arrested, but that other guy! I don’t want to see you dead in a ditch.”
“Neither do I,” Jewel said tightly. “That’s why I dumped them.” This was not a good moment to get drawn into a discussion of her hyperactive libido.
“Yeah, eventually you dumped them. After a while,” Nina said. “You love the kinky shit. I worry.” I worry too. That’s why it’s been six months. “Here’s Clay’s cell number.” Nina pressed a card into Jewel’s hand. “Don’t rush, no pressure, think about it, will you?”
She sat and smoked and eyed Jewel. Standoff.
“Nina, this is not about who has worse judgment when she sleeps around. This is about you and Ed. I need you guys,” Jewel pleaded. “I don’t want you to divorce.”
“He’s Italian, he’ll get over it.” To Jewel’s shocked face Nina said, “That’s the quick way to say, He’s Italian, for years he screwed around with pretty girls at the department, and he knows payback is inevitable. It’s marriage. He’s not a hundred percent dumb. When you turned him down, he brought you home for me to play with.”
“I’m glad he did,” Jewel said, blinking. Ed made a pass at me? “Nina, he’s upset. He asked me to—to—”
Jewel slapped the table. “And look what I find! This is worse than an affair. Girlfriend, your husband busts bunco artists for a living. You’re paying a con man three-fifty a pop for fake sex therapy. It doesn’t take Dr. Ruth to figure this out. If you’re so mad at Ed, wouldn’t the real thing be better?”
Nina drew herself up, stubbing out her cigarette with a much-diamonded hand. “This is not about Ed. It’s about me. I am fifty-five. I’ve only ever had Italian-husband sex, which believe me is nothing to write home about, I can’t speak for what he does with his girlfriends.” She jabbed the diamonds at Jewel. “And I. Deserve. To enjoy. Myself.”