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The Auctioneers by Jessie Morrison | Word Riot
Creative Nonfiction

April 15, 2010      

The Auctioneers by Jessie Morrison

Seventy-five years ago, on July 22, 1934, John Dillinger was shot to death outside the Biograph Theater in the fashionable Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park. If you look on the FBI website today, you’ll find an extensive article about this event, and, predictably, all credit is given to three federal agents: Charles B. Winstead, Clarence O. Hurt, and Herman E. Hollis. The article does mention, however, that none of these men would ever say which one of them actually killed Dillinger—the presumption being that they were all too modest. But the truth is, Charles, Clarence, and Herman knew damn well that the two men who actually killed Dillinger were East Chicago beat cops, cops whose ethnic surnames just didn’t tell the tale of American heroism in quite the way the FBI wanted it told. One of these beat cops was named Martin Zarkovich, and the other, Timothy O’Neil, was my great-great uncle.

What a different Chicago it must have been back then—no search warrants, no self-defense pleas; you just staked out your criminal while he was out at the movies with two girls, and when he emerged from the theater, immersed in the dream world of the film, you pumped him full bullets on a crowded street. Dillinger was sharp enough to sense what was happening, so he actually had time to draw his gun and retreat for the alley, but after years of provoking and humiliating the police, July 22, 1934 marked the day that his number was finally up. See, Dillinger wasn’t just a robber. He was also a cop killer. And some of those cops he’d killed had been friends of my great-great uncle’s, and so when they arrived at the Biograph that night—a steamy, muggy Chicago summer evening—they waited for the sign from the Romanian escort girl in the orange dress not just to carry out their duty, but also to carry out vengeance.

Family lore paints a picture of Uncle Tim as a simple guy; a lifelong bachelor who was devoted to his mother. He never married or had children, and was especially fond of his niece, Eileen; my grandmother. Tim didn’t have very many material possessions, but when he died, he left my grandmother the few items that he felt were worth something—specifically, the Colt Army Special revolver that discharged the bullets that killed the most famous criminal of the Gangster Age. He also left her yellowed newspaper clippings and his letter of congratulations, signed by J. Edgar Hoover himself.

Seventy five years is a long time, and by the time my mom and her two sisters decided to bring the gun to auction, all the players in this tale: Hoover, Dillinger, my uncle, and my grandmother, had all been buried. For years after my grandma’s death the gun was passed from family basement to family basement, no one really quite sure what to do with it, and everyone uncomfortably aware that possession of a handgun in the city of Chicago is illegal.

Then came the day when one of the sisters must have said, “Ya know, that thing is probably worth some money.”

There was the obligatory discussion of keeping the gun and the papers and the letter for nostalgic reasons. But my grandma had been a product of the Great Depression—someone whose practical beliefs and habits might be considered by some today as quaint and curious as a phonograph. I never once saw her wear jeans, and when it rained, she wore a plastic kerchief that tied in a bow beneath her chin. She drank highballs and distrusted banks. She certainly never went on nice vacations, and her only nice possession was a ratty looking fur coat (that she’d bought, unknowingly, at a time when the most gauche item you could buy was real fur). Her daughters knew that she would have supported the sale. I pictured her showing up at auction, red hair carefully hot-rolled, wearing her best brooch, and warily clutching her plastic purse to her chest.

When my family learned that the 75th anniversary of Dillinger’s death was being marked by the release of Public Enemies, the big budget Hollywood film about his life, we knew it was time to act. A River North auction house jumped at the chance to sell the gun, insinuating exclusive access to wealthy memorabilia collectors and thousands and thousands of dollars. My mom and her sisters put the gun in a small metal lockbox, locked it in the trunk, and drove it over to the auction house, fearing the whole time that they would be pulled over and arrested for transporting contraband. They carried their treasure inside, their eyes cutting from side to side at potential thieves or police who might try to steal it from them. This was Chicago, after all, a city they knew as intimately as Dillinger once did, and they understood that when someone in this city was on the brink of a windfall, the people on the streets could smell it.

The gun was photographed and examined and given a glossy spread on the cover of the bidding catalogue. They left the auction house feeling exhilarated and smug. For once in their lives, the Brennan family was at the cusp of an opportunity to cash in without ever having to work for it. As the summer went by, we privately dared to hope, our dreams running wild, jackpots whirring behind our eyes and landing in a row on lucky number sevens. In the weeks leading up the auction, it felt like barely a day went by without some mention of Dillinger on the radio, television, or in the newspaper. The auction house had sent out a deluge of press releases, and buzz about our gun—our gun!— was percolating throughout the city. The closer the auction got, the wider the arcs of my mother’s emotions began to swing. Giddy, rapturous excitement was followed by a cynical low-balling of figures, replaced again with timid hope. We waited.

“I’m going to buy a new mattress and a washer and drier,” my Aunt Patsy declared, never once doubting that she’d be able to buy all of that and then some. And she wasn’t alone. This was no longer about a gun. Maybe it never really was about the gun. It was homage to my ancestors, who never quite seemed to be able to catch a break. The more money we got for the gun, the more all the hard lives of grandma, and Tim O’Neil, and all the rest of them, would begin to make sense. The gun would be like putting a wreath—a really, really expensive wreath—on the graves of all the dead Brennans and O’Neils buried at Calvary Cemetery.

Yes, the gun would make up for many things, and none of them had anything to do with John Dillinger.

When the big day arrived and we filed into our seats in the back row the auction house, our faces were grim. We knew that we were hoping for too much, that the stakes were high, that crushing disappointment was probable. Sitting there, waiting for the sale to begin, the sisters wrangled down each other’s hopes.

“Eight thousand dollars is a lot of money, and that’s probably the most we’ll get.”

“Eight thousand if we’re lucky.”

“And keep in mind, we have to split it between the three of us, and the auction house gets ten percent, and Uncle Sam gets his share. If we walk outta this thing with five hundred bucks apiece, I’ll consider it a success.”

Of course, we didn’t believe any of that.

All around the perimeter of the room were velvet covered tables that displayed artifacts to be auctioned—old fashioned art deco jewelry, obscure hand-drawn maps, rows and rows of grainy photographs, Tiffany’s cuff links and large, jewel-studded earrings. These were all beautiful and interesting, but they weren’t the main draw. The Dillinger memorabilia was featured prominently in the front of the room, and you had to walk past it to get to your seat. There was a letter Dillinger wrote to his niece from prison, some black and white portraits of his bullet-riddled body laid out on a morgue slab; Great Uncle Tim’s handiwork. There was even a plaster death mask that was taken of Dillinger’s face for purposes that were unclear—voyeuristic or medical, or perhaps both. The mask was white and clayish, the mouth gaped open, two open holes where the unseeing eyes had been.

But even these had not generated news coverage. Ours, and ours alone, was the big-ticket item. Because of the handgun ban, a photograph of the Colt Revolver was projected onto the wall. Even though no one there knew who we were, I still felt like we were the most important people in a room. I’d never felt that before—I doubt any of us had—and we fanned ourselves calmly with our bid numbers, pretending that this was just another day at the auction house for regulars like us, trying to project the confident sense of ennui that we imagined rich people exuded.

We eyed and appraised the people around us, trying to gauge by their clothes and their mannerisms just how wealthy they were. I have to admit, we weren’t too impressed. There were a few clumps of sharply dressed buyers, but most were dressed so casually it bordered on schlubbish—t-shirts, jeans, scuffed gym shoes. We reassured each other that the ultra rich are the type of people who don’t need to display their wealth. At all times we were aware of the presence of Loreen, the owner of the auction house. She was a blonde woman in her mid-fifties; chic, urban, cosmopolitan and self-assured, wearing a black suit and big, chunky jewelry that jingled when she walked. She was a presence, flitting around from group to group, waving her arms and telling bawdy jokes—she seemed to know everyone.
Right as people began to take their places, she sidled up to my mom and nudged her with a familiar elbow.

“Word is, we got a buyer from Northern California,” she hissed. “Private collector. Real rich.”

“Is he here?” My mom looked around, extracting a balled up tissue from her pocket.

“He’s going to be phoning in his bid,” she advised, “so watch the phones.” She pointed at the line of black-clad employees who were filing in behind a table full of telephones, hooking Blue Tooths around their ears and nervously clearing their throats. Then, she flitted away, having elevated our hopes even higher, sending our dreams for the gun into the stratosphere.

The auction began with smaller ticket items—old city maps, photographs, and postcards. Loreen would call a price, and someone in the audience would raise his bid card, which looked just like a cardboard fan you might see in a Southern Gospel church. Biding starts at 100 dollars one hundred do I hear 150 –then another bidder would nod slightly—one fifty do I hear 200—another nod—250—a slightly raised fan—three hundred do I hear 350? She’d look hopefully at the other bidder, who would shake his head once, stoically, and the gavel would come down—bang! Sold! To bidder 576 for three hundred dollars. Call it.

Our gun was the twelfth item to be auctioned, and as we listened to the gavel bang down on the other items, my heart began to rise into my throat; my palms were purple, clammy, shaking. Each time Loreen banged the gavel I winced, and so did my dad and sister, who were seated, fans trembling in their laps, on either side of me. Behind us, my mom and aunts were utterly still.

Item number 12, I heard Loreen say, Colt Army Revolver used to slay John Dillinger outside the Biograph Theater, Chicago, Illinois, 1934, with related papers by J. Edgar Hoover and other memorabilia.

Behind me, I felt them stiffen. I prayed—was it wrong to pray for money? But it wasn’t for the money alone that I prayed, but for my mom, my aunts, my whole family; but especially my mom, who could let disappointment crush her, and for whom the gun, this dream, meant so much. I looked around and saw that no one in the audience was poised to raise their fans, but the moment Loreen said, bidding opens at $5,000, the phones against the wall began ringing off the hook; jangling, old-fashioned rings that drowned out the excited whispering that was spreading through the room. I turned behind me and looked at my mom, who was wound tight as a spring, eyes round and shining with nerves.

Five thousand do I hear $5,500? One of the Blue-Toothed employees, murmuring into her phone, raised a pointer finger in the air and nodded—$5,500 do I hear $6,000—down the table another finger was raised. My heart slammed. Back and forth the two bidders jousted via telephone; I imagined them bent over mahogany desks somewhere in California, phones cradled against their ears, their broad, oak panelled windows looking out over rolling vineyards, their walls decorated with displays of rare coins. 6,000. 6,500. 7,000. Up and up the bidding went, and the fingers of the employees kept jabbing the air.

I grabbed my sister’s hand when the bidding reached $15,000. $16,000. $18,000.

At $20,000, the bidding began to lose momentum. The two employees were slower to raise their fingers—first, they would engage in a hushed, prolonged conversation with the buyer while everyone looked on and we strained to listen. It appeared that the buyers had reached their reservation price, and each bid increase had to be cajoled, teased out of them.

At exactly $30,000, when Loreen asked, do I hear 35,000? We trained our eyes on the woman on the phone and she looked up at Loreen with regret, and shook her head once. Loreen asked it again: Do I hear $35,000? The edge of hope in her voice mirrored our own—after all, there was her commission to think about. The buyer murmured some more into the phone, a last attempt, but finally set her mouth in a tight line and shook her head again.

The gavel came down.

It was a good price, and yet I didn’t even have to turn around to know that Mom and aunts were disappointed. We all were. And it was hard to explain why. Maybe it was because the price of my ancestors’ memory had been bought by a faceless stranger from California. And it had been he, not us, who had dictated the final value. Maybe it was because of my mom’s dreams, or Aunt Patsy’s reckless hoping. Maybe it was because Dillinger’s letter to his niece, which was not expected to sell for more than a few hundred bucks, went for over fifty grand. “I guess people care more about the living Dillinger than the dead one,” my sister observed, and for the first time since this whole process began, I thought about the living Uncle Tim. I thought about how, like Dillinger, he must have told his tale of glory to his own beloved niece, perhaps sitting around a table in some north side two-flat kitchen nook, his elbows resting on the table and my grandmother’s pale little Irish feet swinging beneath her chair. I thought about how her pale blue eyes must have widened, thinking about the girl in the orange dress, and how proud she must have felt for being part of a family like that. And I knew that my sister was right—it’s the stories of living that we cling to, not of dying, and that is the way it should be.

Thirty thousand dollars is a year’s salary, and yet when we left the auction, staggering out into the bright sun, it didn’t feel like we’d won anything. We went to a fancy Randolph street restaurant to celebrate, but we picked at our food. My dad complained about how expensive the drinks were. We kept asking my mom how she could be upset about winning thirty grand, but our questions were just as directed at ourselves as they were at her. It seemed ridiculous of us, greedy.

Two weeks later, we got a call from the auction house. Our California buyer had bailed. He made up some excuse that he no longer believed the gun was authentic. He reneged. Loreen told us that to sue him would cost almost as much, in the long run, as the gun itself, and there was always the chance that we wouldn’t win. So he walked away from the deal without any repercussions, while Loreen scrambled around and found a second-tier buyer who purchased it for much less than the original bid. After taxes, commission, and splitting the rest, my mom and her two sisters got a couple grand each.

Aunt Patsy bought a new mattress.

The washer and drier would have to wait.

About the author:

Jessie Morrison is a high school English teacher and student in the MFA program, Fiction Writing, at Columbia College Chicago. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Flash Me Magazine, Ghostfactory Magazine, The Parlor, and the Columbia Storyweek Reader 2009 and 2010. She is a Chicago native.

    1 comment to The Auctioneers by Jessie Morrison

    • Your piece was well delivered with careful pace, with an almost underlying wince, and definitely a sense of the place that is Chicago. You’ve also weaved through the competing sides well, as a good literary essay should.

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