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Palmer Square: Summer, Part I

The clouds of fireflies thinned and dusk retreated from Palmer Square, a clutch of green on Chicago’s Northwest Side. My adopted backyard. I walked there in the early evenings and left my phone at home. Lights came on in houses lining the boulevard that encircles the park.

I sat on a broken bench, looking out over a semicircular clearing on the park’s western edge. In the center of it stood a man in a white v-neck tee tucked into pale blue shorts belted north of his belly button. Fists on hips. Brown socks pulled up taut around shins. An obsolete cliché of stolid Midwesternness. A clinging nodule of Eastern Europe disaspora surveying the invasion force of slack-liners and mustachioed joggers in neon bro-tanks and striped headbands. All around him, the neighborhood of bungalows and century-old three flats was drowning in single origin coffee and tiki cocktails. I wonder what he made of these invaders with their circus tricks and their tubs of hummus, their Italian bikes and Chicago flag leg tattoos. Probably used to them already. A hulky dog jogged circles around him, huffing and exhausted by the heat. I followed the man’s eyes up toward the dozen stars flickering dimly through wispy haze. The ash trees all around us were goners. Different invaders, emerald-green beetles from somewhere south, thinned them down to bone. Their skeletons threw weird Halloween shadows, and stood next to freshly planted oaks that might better endure the creeping heat, the newly-frequent supercells, the freakish polar vortices.

Also in the clearing: a twiggy teenager stumbled around like a baby giraffe on skinny legs, hunching over a cellphone. He wandered in slow loops, then galloped suddenly toward a tree, running his finger across the screen, the phone casting his face in pale light.

I watched the man, watching the teenager.

“Milös,” the man called to the dog, who was busy staring at an ash tree skeleton heavy with squirrels, panting. And the man shook his head disbelieving. He’d had enough. He started to walk east. Milös looked up at the tree and barked once, hoarsely, then trotted after his master.

I got home and turned on the TV and the air conditioning. I went to the kitchen and made a mango lassi, poured it into a mason jar, and washed the blender. I sat on the couch in my underwear and scared myself watching the news groggily, my laptop in my lap. Shootings somewhere, calls for closed borders, weary refugees being compared to swarms of locusts, and somewhere in the Appalachians a hiker killed with a hatchet. Or maybe by a bear. I woke up with mango taste in my mouth. Turned off the television. Turned down the air and opened the windows to the rhythmic pulse of kicking crickets. Back in the kitchen, the big dumb moon stared full at me through southern-facing windows. I filled a jar with chlorine-tinged water, swished it around to soak up mango pulp, and drank. In bed, I dreamed of humid eastern mountains.

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