A Story by EChaps

Topic: "Write a history for a present you've gotten."

It all started with a printing press. Chicago, 1891. Harrison was president, the sky was blue, the printing house employees were considering a strike, and the city bustled on. Outside, the muffled din of a construction crew clanged; the city had approved a slew of new streetcar lines, and implementing them was not a quiet business.
Brian O'Malley was used to the noise by now. Born on the South Side to working-class Irish immigrants, Brian had worked in much louder environments, under managers who called him things he hadn't dared repeat, lest his ma overhear and scrub his mouth out with bitter lye soap.

No, this printing job wasn't so bad. In fact, it might've been the best one yet, Brian thought. The work was simple enough, the people were amicable, and he came home with the sweet smell of ink soaked into his mustache instead of a full-body coating of sweat and grime. The wages were still shite, though. Brian O'Malley couldn't afford to be piss poor, not with a wife and a baby on the way, which is why he spent his working days straining his ears over the hiss of the presses and the metallic banging of the hammers outside, trying to catch snippets of protest-related conversation. It got more fervent with each passing day, harsh and hot like the steam that powered the press of ink onto pages.

After this book, they said. After this book was printed and shipped, they would march. It was only a matter of time.
Stacking the finished books into piles to be wrapped, Brian stopped for a moment, stroking the cover of the top volume absentmindedly. It was a poignant shade, a bright vermillion, like the color of strong Irish blood. Perhaps, if the strike went well, he'd be able to afford it one day.


George Baker liked to consider himself a scholarly man. He made it a rule to keep a small copy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in his inside pocket so he could whip it out during breaks in his occasional inspections at the rail-yard. He never actually read it, of course�"George had gotten to page five before deciding Kant wasn't worth his time�"but he imagined that peering down the book's spine at the perspiring, underpaid workers was like staring down the sight of a rifle at a vulnerable doe; if she wasn't totally idiotic, she would recognize his power, intelligence, and superior position, and run off before she got shot. With Kant's help, Baker had become an excellent huntsman, so much so that the herds fell in line and minimized any ruckus with a single glance. 

Ah, the wonders a good book could accomplish.

Which was why, George Baker decided, it was the only suitable wedding present for his daughter and her fiancée. He found himself roaming the city, sending inquiries to Chicago's major publishing companies and calling cards to his well-read friends and colleagues, searching for the book that would complement his daughter's marriage perfectly.
His search was tireless, and it paid off; in a shop on a side street leading into the center of the city, George Baker found a volume that matched his standards precisely. He noticed first its pages; gilt-edged and gleaming, the gold trim looked regal and sophisticated, perfect for the shelf by the window in his future son-in-law's library, where the sun would stream in and reflect richly off of the leafy pages.
The book was thick, too; a hefty volume good for knocking people on the head if necessary, which George wanted to do to his daughter's fiancée every time he saw him. The boy came from money but his education had been wasted on him. He had a face that could stop a clock, and he wore the strangest patterned trousers, but for some unfathomable reason George's comely, sweet, graceful daughter loved him, and George loved his daughter, so he had to tolerate the fellow.

And so, George bought the book. Paper prices were up because of some strike somewhere (George bet that he could whip them into shape, if they let him), but it was worth it; the cover was a pretty red, and his daughter would look sharp reading it, commanding and scholarly, just like him.

Right before gifting it to his darling girl, George, playing on the sense of humor that he did, in fact, have, clipped a short little ditty from the morning paper called "The Song of Johnny Sands." It playfully described a marriage gone so sour that the spouses plotted to kill each other. It involved a river, and some rope, and George hoped that it might help his daughter reconsider her decision. If anything, she could use it for future reference.


Anna Baker-Lewis had a daughter, once. Her name was Margaret, "sweet Maggie" for short, and she was one of the few things that Anna loved completely, with her whole heart.

Maggie made her first Communion when she was six years old. It was a Sunday in an unseasonably warm March in a small church on the very outskirts of the city's suburbs, where Anna's husband had decided the air was cleaner. Maggie's curls had looked like the softest golden goose down with the way the breeze caressed them, and Anna had fashioned her a little crown out of crucifix dogwood flowers to lie gently on top.

Anna had smelt spring in the air and had felt God in the fields. It was the sort of day one goes back to again and again to try to relive the bliss of it.

Perhaps, Anna thought time and time again, perhaps she should have shielded Maggie then, taken her home and hid her, because God came too soon that day, and within the week she was gone. Sweet Maggie, in the fields with God and the dogwood flowers and the breezes, tucked away in the earth, away from Anna, part of the spring.

There was a crucifix dogwood flower tucked within the pages of a book of poetry Anna had gotten from her father years ago. She'd put it there after plucking it secretly from Maggie's crown, and it had been preserved, brittle and wrinkled, by the weight of the words on top of it. The flower had left a slight brownish outline on the poem upon which it had been pressed�"And what is Life? An hour-glass on the run,/A mist retreating from the morning sun,/A busy, bustling, still-repeated dream�"and Anna traced it with her fingers sometimes in the dark, shape memorized. Fondling the dogwood bloom gently, Anna imagined she could feel where the petals had touched Maggie's curls, imagined she could touch them too, that flaxen down in God's vernal wind.

And she wept (but not often), her tears warping the book's pages, making the poem's letters run�"And what is Death? Is still the cause unfound?/That dark mysterious name of horrid sound?/A long and lingering sleep the weary crave.�"but most times, her grief went too deep for tears.

There wasn't a warm March for a long time after that, and Anna could never feel God in winter.

And Peace? Where can its happiness abound?/Nowhere at all, save heaven and the grave.


The night was hopping, and Rose was laying out her options. There was Chappy's down on 96th, but she'd heard the mob had been sleazing around there lately. The hooch was good, but not good enough to get her head blown off, thank you very much. She could head to Uptown, check out the Green Mill, or maybe run over to Simon's, but that place had a rap for drugstore cowboys by the dozens, and she didn't want any zozzled bimbos trying to pick her up, not tonight, anyway.

Maybe it would be one of those rare nights when she would stay inside, not bothering to do up her hair or rouge her cheeks. It was awful tedious, sometimes, all the work Rose had to put in to make herself presentable to her friends and the folks at the speakeasies, but it was awful fun, too. Rose was a night owl by nature. She liked the booze well enough, and the dancing was the bee's knees, that she knew for sure.

But every once in a while, she would stay in her house, try her best to shoo her parents away, hole herself up in her room in the attic, and read. It was something she'd never admit to anyone; they'd accuse her of being stuffy, and she had a reputation to uphold. The words, though, they spoke to her. They came from a book her Aunt Anna had given her as a birthday present one year. It was a dusty clunker, nothing less than she'd expect from hoary Aunt Anna, a gray, bitter old bird who always wore more layers of clothing than the weather called for and whose eyes were dull and shifty, like an overworked member of the fuzz.

Flipping through the book one day, Rose had found that Aunt Anna had slipped an article by that dame Dorothy Dix into the pages, probably for Rose to find, about "baby vamps" and how they corrupt young female "innocence" and "freshness." For being "The World's Highest Paid Woman Writer," Rose thought this Dorothy Dix was a right Mrs. Grundy, no doubt about it. In retaliation, she clipped an advertisement for the new "Serpentine Smoke" cigarette holder�"come all the way from London too, how about that�"and put it right over the top. That would show those dumb Dora's who the big cheese was in society these days. People like them needed to catch up with the times�"but after reading some of the poetry in her book, Rose was beginning to think people in the olden days weren't so different after all. Chaucer sounded a lot like the raving old man who hung out at Riverview after he drank too much gin; Poe reminded her of her friend Clara when she got all dolled up one night and the boys insulted her dress; and Emerson made her think of Jimmy, the bartender over at Halligan's who made a killer Highball but refused to drink anything stronger than club soda himself, and who spent hours trying to wax intellectual to anyone who would listen.

Any of these poets trying to down today's hooch, though, Rose thought to herself, that would be a sight. Ab-so-lute-ly a sight indeed, she mused, and she sat on the floor, book in her lap, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed.


The thing about poetry, Ed knew, was that there was no real technique to it. One could go on and on about rhyme schemes and metaphors, but when it came down to the fundamentals, to the heart of it, it was all about raw emotion. He had a collection of poetry he'd found in his attic as a boy, and he took great joy in sifting through the ostentatious word choice like a miner panning for gold, searching for the nuggets of emotion hidden in the flowery, old-fashioned texts. They were there, just harder to get to�"folks back then had a harder time expressing emotions without making excuses.

Now, Ed, he was good at emotions. He said what he felt, when he felt it, and he never apologized for it. He liked to think of himself as something of a poet, as well�"he kept a small, pink legal pad on his person at all times, and stuck the poems he jotted on its pages all around his house. There were snippets of thoughts on his fridge, in drawers, impaled on his television antennae (he should probably relocate those if he wanted better reception), and he plucked them up sometimes, read them, tossed them, or scribbled more words down. One poem, however, didn't belong out in the open; it was the kind of poem one writes for oneself, when one needs to express something but doesn't want to share it with the world. A personal poem. This one was about his daughter, because she was in love with a man (she didn't know it yet, but he could see it in the way she looked at him, in the way she spoke his name�"he knew this because he had felt the same thing, once, and it is not something a man, especially not one like Ed, forgets).

As unto the bow the cord is,
So unto the man is woman;
Though she bends him,
she obeys him,

Though she draws him,
yet she follows
Useless each without the other,

Thus it is our daughters leave us
Those we love, and those who love us
Just when they have learned to help us

Finishing the last stroke of his pen, Ed ripped the page off of his pad, stashed the page in his big book of poetry, and closed the cover.


In a small town in Illinois, a girl fell in love with a book in an antique shop. "Living Thoughts In Words That Burn, From Poet, Sage and Humorist," it was called, edited by Daphne Dale, published by Elliot & Beezley, Chicago, 1891. The pages were lined with gold and she thought the cover might have been red, once. Her favorite part about it, though, were the treasures littering the in-betweens of its pages�"hand-written poems, flowers, newspaper articles. She treasured that personal touch, and raved about the book all the way home.

A few days later, she unwrapped it for Christmas.

© 2013 EChaps

Author's Note

I don't really have anyone else edit my writing, so it's all kind of word vomit. Go ahead and rip it apart.

Poems used:
"What is Life?" by John Clare

Pink legal pad poem: Author Unknown; found in the book.

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Added on February 25, 2013
Last Updated on February 25, 2013
Tags: short story, story, words, prose, fiction, book, books, antique book, antiques, history, essay, Chicago, USA, gift, present



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