Thursday, December 29, 2005


Marshall Field’s, the Chicago department store about to lose its name to Macy’s, has long been known for its windows. Each year, the ground floor display windows fill with elaborate winter scenes: leaping nutcrackers, Santas and elves, princes, skaters and ballroom dancers. They glitter, shine and mesmerize shoppers on pilgrimages from Decatur to Indianapolis.

This is a tale of Field’s other windows.

The ground floor of Field’s flagship State Street store is a several story high atrium, stretching above the rooms in curlicued plaster. When my father was a young college student working as a stock boy at Marshall Field and Company, his job included opening the windows. Another young man, a student like him, trained him to do it.

My father would stand on a narrow catwalk and push the windows open one by one. When he recounts this episode, he gestures outward with his arms. I can’t tell if he used bare hands or poked them out with a pole.

Then, he decided he wanted a day off. He can’t remember why. A summer day? A ball game? My father lived for baseball as a youth, his one heartache: his own father refusing to sign a farm league contract with the Cubs because my father was too young.

On that obscure day off, the day my father didn’t work, the other young man took his place—creeping along the catwalk, pushing open the windows. On that day, the day my father didn’t work, the other boy pressed the windows wide, leaned forward and fell. He plunged to his death.

Fifty-eight years later my father remembers the young man’s funeral. My father didn’t introduce himself to the parents, didn’t say it should have been him, that he should have been working that day.

He tells this story at the holiday table, on the eve of Field’s own demise. It’s a grim tale and I forget to ask if he ever did it again, ever returned to work, ever crawled along the catwalk, poking out the windows, ever whispered to his coworkers of that lost young man. For whatever he did, he did it safely enough to quadruple his years, to bring me into this world and to make me mourn and remember a nameless young man I never have met.

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