I never labeled Jean a “hillbilly,” but I suppose she was.

I had moved from Hyde Park, site of the University of Chicago, to a working-class Chicago neighborhood. The wood frame building contained four apartments, two on the ground floor and two on the floor above. I lived in the apartment fronting the sidewalk. Jean lived on the ground floor behind me.

She was attractive. She had striking black hair and a pretty face and a nice figure. Her lovely appearance, however, was marred by her teeth, which clearly had been neglected. Some were missing. She did not work but was raising what seemed to be at least three children, sometimes more. I never quite understood her biological relationship to all the kids. I think two were hers, including a three-year-old girl who was pretty and a delight. I got the impression that others were children of relatives who were dropped off for extended stays. She apparently had kin in Chicago who had these children, but I never saw any of the adults. Neither did I understand her family history. She had been born in Kentucky, but I did not know when or why she had moved to Chicago. She never mentioned her parents. I believe she told me that she was raised Catholic, which did not fit in with my assumptions of hill folk, but she wore a religious medal around her neck. How she paid the rent and bought groceries was not clear. When I moved in, there was no man in the house, although I got the impression that one had just moved out.

We chatted some as we came and went from the building, but I was surprised when she banged on my door one afternoon. She was hysterical, and it took a while for me to understand her. I learned that she had just come home, and found her door bolted from the inside. She was understandably scared of who was inside, and she indicated that she believed that it was the former boyfriend whom she had kicked out. “He must have kept a key,” is all she could say while crying.

I called the police, and a young officer responded quickly. I explained the situation to him, and he, too, looked scared. (All this gave me a greater respect for the work of the police. He had no idea what was on the other side of the locked door, and he was going to have deal with the situation. The possibilities included a crazy man with a gun or knife.) The Chicago police, at least then, were in single-officer squad cars. He called for backup but thought that he needed to act promptly. I don’t remember how he got into the apartment. And I don’t know what I was thinking when I followed him, although it was at a distance. Jean had just bought one of those living room sets from the kind of furniture store that advertises on late-night television. She was proud of the suite, but now she found her new couch and chair had been slashed again and again. Something like acid had been poured on her coffee table, and the laminate, meant to look like wood grain, had dissolved. But there was no intruder. A window was open in the bedroom. It was only a slight drop to the ground, and he must have fled that way.

Perhaps this gave us some sort of bond, for Jean and I started talking more. I was in law school, and she seemed very interested in that. More and more, she looked at the books I had. In what seemed like an act of courage for her, she asked if she could borrow one. I tried to hide my surprise; if I had thought about it, I would have bet that she had not finished high school. We talked about what she might like to read. I am not sure what she said, but I finally handed her the collected Sherlock Holmes novels and stories. Then, to my further surprise, she returned the book within the week, saying that she had loved it. She looked over at my bookshelves, and she did not have to ask. We went over and found something else for her, and I became a lending library. She, in return, having noticed that I cooked regularly, gave me a cookbook, written by a White House chef for President Kennedy. Why she had such a book remained a mystery. I still use it.

I then started spending more time with her kids.

(continued February 6)


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