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Poetry #483
(published April 22, 2010)
Dead Alewives
by Leah Mueller
Lake Erie was going to be dead
for at least four hundred years
and Lake Michigan was not far behind
in 1967, the year they closed the beaches
because the water was so virulent,
so infected by the toxins that bred and multiplied
in all the corners where people lived.
I wore my bathing suit under my clothing
when I went to summer camp
at the Jane Addams Community Center
I walked fast down Halsted Street to get there
because there were always dangers
including a man who offered me a dollar
and then showed his genitals to two boys.
The world was going to hell
but I just scampered around the edges
trying not to fall inside.
Sometimes a voice on the radio
nonchalantly announced the names of beaches
that were closed until further notice,
but the next day, mysteriously
the water was declared safe
and the beaches would re-open
looking exactly the same,
except for a huge, fetid mass
of dead alewives, neatly raked into piles.
There were literally thousands
of dead alewives, a must-to-avoid
if you were swimming, or running,
or just lying around.
The alewives were simply another part
of the urban landscape.
We even incorporated them into
our happy childhood games.
They made a good boundary line for Frisbees.
Sometimes, in a joking manner
we would dangle a child
over a pile of dead alewives,
pretend that we were going to drop him,
and then let him go at the last minute.
I lay on my towel
in front of the blue and white boathouse
at the North Avenue beach
and listened to endless reports from the loudspeakers
about children who had become separated from parents
who somehow had failed to notice their absence.
Sometimes a kid would be lost
for a couple of hours;
you'd hear him crying in the background,
behind the amplified hum of speaker static
while the voice begged for someone
to please just come and get him.
I guess all of us felt that way—
dodging those piles of decaying fish
realizing that our mothers and fathers were useless
and that they had probably killed all the water
in a million-mile radius—
everything was dying
and that stinking pile of dead alewives
was there to prove it.

Leah Mueller notes: "This is a recollection of life on the beaches of Chicago when I was a young, impressionable child."

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