A Letter

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the football team had gathered to check in their equipment at the stadium. The atmosphere was a mixture of chagrin and relief; the team had lost the last game of the season and finished 5 and 5, no great shakes, but at least all the hard work was over. There hadn’t been that many seniors on the team—only five—so that was some kind of excuse. There had been six sophomores who saw a lot of action on offense or defense, and a couple of others who played on special teams, so the coaches were optimistic about the future and in a good mood.

Joe was one of the seniors, and the only one who hadn’t earned a letter at the start of the season. He was a bit undersized, but there were smaller kids who were better than him. He was fast enough—technically he was a halfback and defensive back—but he didn’t seem to make good use of his speed. He tended to run in a straight line, as if he were a chalk mark on the coach’s blackboard, and so when a hole closed or never opened he went nowhere, and on defense, he’d run right at a guy who’d put a move on him and be gone.

He’d done everything they’d asked all four years he’d played, but he was still on the junior varsity the year before. He got a dinky junior varsity patch that he put on his right breast, but on his left all he had was a letter for speech and debate. From a distance they all looked the same, and so Joe would pal around with the other four seniors and hope that their reflected glory would shine a little status on him.

He thought he’d built up a fair amount of goodwill with the coaching staff, then the school had gone and fired the head coach from the year before and replaced him with somebody from a junior college in Kansas. It was the man’s first head coaching job—he was apparently an offensive genius—but it meant that Joe had to start over and show the new man what a hard worker he was even if he wasn’t that good.

The coach had laid down the law the first day of practice, August 15th. He’d handed out a mimeographed sheet telling you what the rules were; everybody had to get a crew cut, coats and ties on game day, no alcohol, no smoking, and an eleven o’clock curfew. There was to be an honor system—if you saw one of your teammates break the rules you had to turn him in. And you had to run a six-minute mile with your equipment on—after practice. You had to keep trying until you could do it.

Joe had accomplished the feat the first day—he’d been in training all summer long—but the coach barely noticed it. He just made a check next to Joe’s name on his clipboard and yelled at the others who came in behind him.

It had continued like that the whole season. Joe was on the scout team, but he was never called upon to play the part of the other team’s number one back; when the head coach stepped in to demonstrate something, he was always directing his instruction towards the first team. Joe might have been just a cog in the machine, his dad told him, but machines still needed every one of their cogs. Hang in there, he’d said; hard work is the one thing that’s always rewarded in this world.

You had to play twenty quarters—half the season–to get a letter; Joe didn’t know if the assistant coaches kept close track, but he knew he had been in nineteen. There were three quarters—two of them mopping up–against a weaker team the first game, and he’d allowed himself to get his hopes up. Then there were three non-conference games that he got into for two quarters each on the kick-off team. He figured if the team played halfway decent ball he’d get at least two quarters a game the rest of the way, once when they kicked off at halftime or the beginning of the game, a second time when they scored. By the end of the fourth week he had nine quarters.

The fifth week the conference schedule began, and the coaches began to pit one player against another for playing time to see who was tougher. They had “hamburger” drills halfway through practice every day; one-on-one challenges to see which kid would drive the other back, no “cupping” around because there were tackling dummies on either side so you had nowhere to run. Joe didn’t see what that had to do with his position; he was a back, not a lineman.

Some of the younger backs were sturdier, more compact than Joe, who was wiry. He’d tried everything to put on weight, drinking milk shakes and supplements, but then he’d run it off trying to stay in shape. He told himself it was better to be lighter and quicker and in good shape when August rolled around than to be heavier and puke up your guts the first week.

And so when it came his turn for the hamburger drill he got pushed around, and would grow frustrated that a bunch of sophomores were gaining on him, then passing him on the depth chart. He couldn’t believe the coaches would put some younger kid into a conference game that counted against a good team, he who’d been working so hard for so long.

So at the halfway point in the season he had eleven quarters, then he only got into two quarters the next three games, then only one quarter the last two games–that was nineteen. He figured they’d round up, or cut him some slack because he was a senior. It was no skin off their nose whether they gave out one more letter, he figured.

He sat on the bench next to his locker and fiddled with his stuff, waiting for the head coach to come out of his office so he could say goodbye and thank you, maybe talk to him for a second. His dad had told him that was important, that was something you’d learn in life; to make a connection with people, look them in the eye, make a good impression so they’d remember you when the time came to make an important decision. Joe knew his dad was talking about adult things like raises and promotions, but there wasn’t anything more important to him in the world right now than getting a football letter.

He saw the coach emerge from his office with Don, one of the sophomores, a little water bug of a kid with acne and glasses who didn’t look much like a football player, but who played with a reckless abandon that scared Joe a bit, and the defensive coach named Skip.

“Love to hit, love to hit, love to HIT!” Skip was saying as he put his arm around Don and clapped him on the shoulder. The head coach shook Don’s hand and said “You’re gonna be the first kid lined up outside the gate the first day of practice next summer, aren’t ya?”

“I’m gonna sleep outside the night before,” Don said with a big smile on his face. He shook Skip’s hand and walked off looking down at a piece of paper the head coach had given him, and the two coaches watched him go with obvious appreciation of a fine piece of football flesh.

“Coach?” Joe said softly and then, when he saw the two men talking to each other, “Coach?” a little more firmly.

“Huh? Oh, hi Joe. What can I do for you?”

“I . . . uh . . . just wanted to say thank you and I . . . uh . . . enjoyed playing under you, even if it was only this year.” He stuck out his hand and, after the coach looked down, they shook.

“Well, thanks, Joe, nice of you to say that. I came in not knowing anybody and it’s nice to hear I had some impact on people.”

“No, really, it was a great year even though we coulda done a little better, I think you’ve got a nucleus here for next year’s team.”

Skip interrupted to say “I’m gonna go to the equipment room to start taking inventory.”

“Okay,” the head coach said. “I’ll be in the office for awhile.”

The head coach turned and started to walk away as Joe spoke, after swallowing a little.

“Coach?”

The coach didn’t hear him at first, so he spoke again.

“Coach?”

“Yeah? Oh, sorry, I thought we were through here.”

“I was wondering . . .”

“Yes?”

“I was wondering whether I was going to get a letter.” Joe looked straight ahead at the coach, but he felt the eyes of the players behind him trained on his back.

“A letter?”

“Right. I’m a . . . senior, and I think I got into enough quarters to get a letter.”

“Well, Joe, I don’t know what being a senior has to do with it. It’s not a perfect attendance award. You get a letter in football for accomplishing something, not just showing up. You have to get into the games and knock somebody on their butt.”

Joe inhaled, even though his lungs already felt full. “I think I had enough quarters, coach . . .”

“I don’t think so Joe. I’m pretty good at arithmetic. Even if you did, hell, son, you have to make a difference out there on the field.”

The room had grown quiet as the man and the boy spoke. “Coach, I tried to make a difference every time I got into a game.”

“This is a good lesson for you,” the coach said, then turned to face the boys sitting on the benches that ringed the room, “and for all of you boys. This is a life lesson for you all, right here. Don’t ever confuse effort with results—got it?”

Joe couldn’t see the boys behind him but he could feel them exhale, as if relieved that they were being spared as another was sacrificed.

“Before you got here . . .” Joe began, but the coach cut him off.

“It doesn’t matter what happened before I got here, son,” the coach said with a half-measure of empathy in his voice. “The only thing that matters is what I think because I’m the head coach now. If you can understand that, you can understand why I can’t just hand out football letters like they’re penny candy. That wouldn’t be fair to the other kids who came out and worked just as hard as you—maybe harder–but who got better than you, see?”

Joe looked down and said “I see,” and then “thanks.”

“No problem. Hey, good luck in college next year wherever you go, okay?”

“Okay,” Joe said.

The coach stepped into his office and Joe walked over to the bench and stuffed his gym bag with the few items of equipment that were his to keep; his mouth guard and his jockstrap and an extra pair of socks he kept in his locker.

He knew all the other boys in the room to call them by their first names, but he said nothing to them as he walked out.

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You Don’t Know What Love Is

I was sort of between girlfriends then–Marthe had moved out after we’d come back from the Bahamas. We’d had that trip planned for a long time, though why she even booked it was a mystery to me since we hadn’t been getting along. I guess she thought maybe it would bring us back together, but I already had my eye on someone else.

I’d seen her around Beacon Hill a few times, then one night at a bar I saw her across the room, laughing in a way that Marthe never did, her head thrown back. When I turned back to Marthe she was reading her program from the Symphony earlier in the night. She was like that, self-contained, in an ethereal little world of her own—probably the only woman in history who’d done needlepoint while sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park.

With Rachel, as I later came to learn was the other woman’s name, everything was on the surface, there were no depths, but that’s what I was looking for just then. It wasn’t drama that was the problem with Marthe, it was tragedy. She didn’t make scenes, but when she deigned to come out of her high-WASP cocoon or from whatever century Johann Freaking Bach and his sons lived in, everything was serious. Rachel on the other hand was the first Jewish woman I ever knew who had no intellectual side whatsoever. I took her to the ballet—Billy the Kid—on our first date, trying to impress her. Afterwards she said if I ever tried to do that again she’d kill me, and she didn’t sound like she was kidding.

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Somehow we got past that and after a few more dates she was prepared for me to meet her girlfriends, so I started getting the once-over from a lot of women I’d never met before. You may know the look, but only if you’ve been a piece of sirloin in a meat counter; the new boyfriend is examined with a gaze that’s part greeting, part appraisal. I think they were glad for her—I know that sounds conceited, but I just mean it completed their social circle so they didn’t have to fill it in with gay guys.

It was a change of altitude figuring out what to do with her when we were on our own though. On Friday nights we’d have a lot of catching up to do, then if there was a party Saturday night we’d go to that. I’ll say this, there was never any sitting around arguing about whether to listen to classical or jazz like Marthe and I sometimes ended up doing when we needed an excuse to go at each other.

Rachel said she’d checked me out and was satisfied. Not sure what that meant—the mutual friend I found to introduce us barely knew me, although he was the kind of guy who figured he’d plumbed the depths of your soul once he’d given you a firm handshake and looked you squarely in the eye. He was dating Rachel’s friend, so maybe he just wanted somebody to talk to on Saturday nights.

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I wasn’t looking for a rebound romance, if that’s what she thought. I was just looking for a change of pace. Marthe had been the first woman I’d met in Boston, and maybe we latched on to each other because both of us were new to town and didn’t know anybody. Rachel was from the suburbs, she knew people, and they wanted to have fun together—nothing wrong with that.

I figured at some point I needed to show Rachel my domestic side, even if I didn’t think we were made for each other long term, so I offered to make her dinner at my apartment, veal I think. She acted surprised, said she was impressed, etc. went through the whole range of standard role reversal reactions—she couldn’t cook for shit, that was for sure. What does a Jewish American Princess like to make for dinner, her friend Catherine had asked me when the question of Rachel’s culinary skills first came up. I said I didn’t know, and she said “reservations.”

It hadn’t been that way with Marthe. She got home before I did, but I was expected to help out with everything, from cooking to birth control up to but not including demonstrating for the equal rights amendment. I did have to drive her to the traffic rotary where she stood out with her sign, though.

I had a second-floor apartment in the Back Bay that faced south so you got sun in the winter. I put the dinner table in the window so it was like you had a good table at the Hampshire House. Rachel brought flowers—nice touch, I said, but I’d probably kill them.

“Why?” she asked.

“I have a black thumb.”

“I thought you meant intentionally.”

“I wouldn’t hurt a flea.”

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She sat down and had a glass of wine while I cooked and she began to unload on Catherine’s husband, a stockbroker who was sucking all the money he made up his nose.

“Why doesn’t she divorce him?”

“She was madly in love with him not too long ago—they’ve only been married a year,” she said. “She can’t believe she made such a mistake.”

“I guess those things happen,” I said.

“I know, it’s too bad. I feel sorry for her.”

She didn’t get up to help with the cooking—she’d brought a cheesecake for dessert, so I guess she figured she’d already done enough.

“So guess what?” she asked.

“What?”

“We’re going to be neighbors.”

“You’re kidding!” I really was surprised. She lived on the other side of Beacon Hill, and I thought she liked the distance between us.

“Nope–my father’s going to buy me a condo.”

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I figured I should be enthusiastic so I said “terrific” or something like that. “Where is it?”

“On Exeter, between Newbury and Comm Ave,” she said. I did the math—five blocks away—and put the asparagus on. “Close to shopping,” she said.

“It’s a wise man who knows his daughter,” I said. “We’re about ready.”

“Can I take anything to the table?”

“Just your plate and your drink.”

She sat down and I put on one of the few records I owned that I could play at dinner without Marthe complaining.

“Well, this is nice,” Rachel said as she raised her glass.

“Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

We started to eat—Rachel wasn’t one like Marthe to starve herself all the time, and she dug in as usual.

“What is this music?” she asked.

“Chet Baker,” I said. He was singing “You Don’t Know What Love Is” at a concert in Italy.

“What’s this guy’s problem?”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s like . . . pathetic.”

“It’s a sad song.”

“You don’t know,” she sang, mockingly, “what love is! God, did his goldfish just die or what?”

I looked at her evenly, not wanting to ruin things. “I can change it if you want,” I said, and got up to put on something else.

And You And You And You

They had been stuck in traffic since they’d dropped off Janet, her friend from New York, and her boyfriend Greg at Logan.  In retrospect, it was a dumb idea to invite them for Fourth of July weekend.  It was hot, her apartment wasn’t that big, there was a million people in town, and the spur of the moment idea to go to Plum Island and then circle back to the airport and drop them off had turned into a disaster.  The roads were jammed with people coming into Boston for the concert and the fireworks, and they had inched their way along as Janet grew more and more nervous, almost hysterical, that they were going to miss their plane.

“Aren’t you allowed to drive in the breakdown lane?” she had asked as she hung on the back of the headrest on Linda’s seat.

“It doesn’t make any difference,” he had said without looking back.  “The lane ends up ahead, and people won’t let you in without a fight.  This is the Italian section.”

“I’m Italian,” Janet said with a tone of irritation that was subdued in accord with the formalities that obtain between hosts and weekend guests, but not excessively so.

“I know—I’m just saying,” he said, trying to exculpate himself from blame for the unintentional insult.

“Just saying what?” Janet asked.

“This is an area where you can get your tires slashed for taking up a parking spot if you’re not from the neighborhood.  People don’t take slights—major or minor—lightly.”

Janet sat back in her seat and Greg patted her knee.  “Calm down,” he said.  “We’ve got plenty of time.  We’re not checking bags.”

Every now and then there’d be a break as a traffic light changed in their favor, and he’d make as much progress as he could before things would jam up again.

“What terminal are we in?” Janet asked.

“Delta is B,” Greg said, and that seemed to make her feel they’d made it—just A and B and they’d be there.

They turned into the entrance to the airport as they came out of the tunnel, drove past the rental car exit.  Terminal A was closed so there was no traffic backed up there, and after waiting a few minutes at the entry to Terminal B they were at curbside.

“Thank you guys so much for such a great weekend,” Janet said to Linda as she gave her a hug.

“Good to see you, old man,” Greg said.  He was like that, an investment banker, a latter-day Tom Buchanan without the polo ponies, self-consciously fusty, but fun nonetheless.  He’d ordered a hundred dollar bottle of wine at dinner the night before, but he had also recounted—with photographic accuracy—some Pee-wee Herman routines from before the bust in the porn theatre.

“Sorry I was a little crabby back there,” Janet said as she hugged him softly.  “I should have trusted your driving.”

“Actually, you shouldn’t,” Linda said.  “His sense of direction is slightly defective.”

“Take care of my old roomie, okay?” Janet had said, and then kissed him.

“Don’t worry, I will,” he had said.  “She’s got me on a short leash.”

They got back in the car as others were bearing down on them, and waved as they drove off.

“Bye,” Linda had yelled out the window, then he changed lanes to get to the exit and they were back in line again, waiting to get in the tunnel.

He wasn’t sure what to make of the weekend, whether he was being auditioned for groom or what.  It had been more than a little uncomfortable, having to split the bill with a guy who probably made five times what he did.

“Did you like them?” Linda asked.

“Sure, they’re a lot of fun.”

“Greg’s kind of full of himself, but he’s better than her old boyfriend.”

“Why’s that?”

“He was like you—too quiet.  Janet needs somebody . . . outgoing.”

“You’re right—that’s not me.”

She didn’t know how to take that—whether he’d had a bad time and was now going to go into hibernation at his place until the next weekend, the way he did whenever they’d had a spat, or it hadn’t been a good weekend for her to have sex.

They drove on in silence for awhile and she realized that, whatever they were going to do, she needed to go back to his place to get her briefcase for work Monday.  As much as she would have liked to have him drop her off in Chestnut Hill, she had to get her things.

“I . . . uh . . . hate to mention it, but I have to go back to your place,” she said gingerly.

“You don’t want me to drop you off at your place?”

“I left my stuff at your place Friday night, and I need it first thing Monday morning for a meeting.”

He let go with a sigh; he’d have to drive through the Fourth of July crowd—hundreds of thousands of people—all because she hadn’t planned ahead.

“No problem,” he said as he turned and headed down Storrow Drive, the Charles River on their right.

The Esplanade was already filling up even though it was barely mid-afternoon.  The bridges were filled with people carrying coolers and blanks, and cops were stationed on the river side to check for liquor.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she turned to look at him.

“It’s okay,” he said.  “I just have to get off at the bridge, and then go into Cambridge, make a U-turn and come back.”

He said it, she thought, with a tone that suggested he was taking her on the Oregon Trail.

“You don’t have to be that way about it,” she said.

“I’m not being any way,” he said as he looked back to his right, into his blind spot.  He changed lanes.

“Yes you were,” she said.  “They were my friends, and this whole weekend has been an imposition on you.”

“I said it was okay,”  he said, but even though his words were intended as mollification, he sounded angry.

“Janet and I are good friends,” she said.  “We promised each other we’d be in each other’s weddings, and not make the other buy a stupid-looking bridesmaid’s dress.”

She realized as soon as she’d said it that was the wrong thing to bring up, where things stood with them.

“Um-hmm,” he said as he exited onto the Mass Ave bridge.  He held the car at the yellow line while hordes of people walked by on their way into Boston.

She tried to think of something to say to take the edge off the conversation, but he wasn’t in a mood to talk, she hoped just because of the traffic and the people.

“This is going to take forever,” she said when she saw the line of cars headed into Boston on the bridge.  “I’m sorry.”

“These things happen,” he said.  “Do you have your key?”

“Yes—why?”

“I’ll park on Marlborough, and you can go up and get your stuff and I’ll take you to your place.  By the time I get back it’ll be the middle of the concert and the traffic will be lighter.”

So that’s how it’s going to be, she thought.  He’s had enough of me for one weekend.  Fine—probably better that they have some time apart.

The cars were stopped on the bridge, but somebody waved them into the flow and so they only had the width of the river to go.  She felt stiff and hot, and he seemed to have switched his mind off the weekend on to work already.

They stopped and started in silence, he looking down towards the Hatch Shell at the big boats that had moved into position for the fireworks.  Ordinarily he’d have said something, she thought, joked around.  The silence was painful.

They proceeded by intervals of four or five cars, which was how many could make it through the stop light before traffic jammed up on Comm Ave; the cross streets were gridlocked, with everybody trying to get into town for the big celebration, while she was just trying to get her things and get back out, back to her apartment to take a shower.

They made it across the water, one block to go, when they heard a siren up ahead and watched two fire trucks go past on Comm Ave, probably on their way to put out a hibachi fire on somebody’s deck.  The commotion meant that they missed a green light, and the congestion was worse than it had been all day.

“Might as well turn off the engine,” he said as he reached for the key.

“Don’t—I want air conditioning,” she said, and he looked at her with a barely-concealed scowl, as if she were eating up provisions that had to last them for a long time.

“Fine,” he said, and put his right hand back on the steering wheel.  “You could just open up your window,” he said as he caused the driver side window to roll down.  The breeze from the river was faint, but it gave the car a sense of space—the smell of the water.

“What’s the point of having air conditioning on if you’re going to open up your window?” she said irritably.

“Okay,” he said, as he pushed the button to raise it again.

They sat there for several minutes, which seemed longer than they were.  The cars in front of them weren’t moving; perhaps the fire was just a few blocks down from the intersection.

“I’m sorry, I have to turn the car off if I’m going to get you back to your place, I’m almost out of gas and it’s Sunday,” he said after a while.

“All right, she said.  She pushed the button on her side as he did on his, and he turned off the car.  They were silent and sweating, but at least the wind off the river cooled them down.

As they sat there, a bearded, disheveled man made his way up the line of cars from Marlborough Street, walking between lanes, talking and gesturing to the cars on either side of him.

“What’s he doing?” she asked.

“I dunno.  He looks like one of those guys who hawk newspapers at stop signs.”

“Except he doesn’t have any papers.”

They could see people in cars causing their window to go up as the man made his way towards them.  “Turn on the car so I can roll my window up,” she said.  “He scares me.”

He turned the key in the ignition but the man was almost at the hood of their car, so they hadn’t time to close their windows and heard him speak with a firm voice and a lusterless, almost business-like tone.

“Fuck you,” they heard him say to the driver two cars ahead of them, “And you,” to the next driver, “and you” to them as they sat there, his wild eyes glaring at them through the window, “And you” to the car behind them, “And you, and you, and you,” off into the distance, making his way across the river, cursing as he went.

Traffic started to move, catching them unawares.  They rolled slowly forwards, happy to be making progress, relieved to have the man in the rear view mirror.

He turned onto Marlborough Street and, halfway up the block, stopped the car.  They turned and looked at each other and, like a balloon popping, started laughing all of a sudden, for no reason and with no explanation other than relief now that the long day was behind them.

“I’ll go get my stuff,” she said after a while with a conciliatory tone, her eyes tearing up from the release of the laughter.

“I’ll park the car and come up with you.”

A Flag Stop

The bus had made good time from Chicago to St. Louis, or at least it seemed that way to Carl, who had fallen asleep as it drove through Springfield. When he woke up they were approaching the bridge over the Mississippi River; he glanced at his watch and saw it was 9:30 at night. He looked around the bus at the other passengers, some of whom—like him—were just waking up as the bus slowed down and the lights became brighter after ninety minutes of rolling through dark plains on a smooth highway.

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A black woman across the aisle rubbed her eyes while her young son continued to doze by her side. A middle-aged white man with a top coat over a blue blazer and tie looked out the window, his briefcase ready on the seat next to him; probably a salesman, Carl thought, without having any particular experience that would qualify him to reach this conclusion. He was only nineteen, and the only salesmen he’d ever seen either had either come to the front door of the house where his parents still lived, or he’d seen them calling on merchants downtown in the county seat where he grew up.

The lights beaming down on the streets shed a orangish-purple cast on the near-deserted city, making him think of the yellow lights on the back porch of his boyhood home, and how they were supposed to keep bugs away during the summer but didn’t entirely succeed. He thought of the possibility that the odd light that colored the streets was designed to get people to go home and go to bed, so there’d be less crime, but it took him only a second to smile at that improbable notion.

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The bus slowed as it crawled through the streets from one stoplight to the next, giving him a chance to take in the night people of the city. Everyone either had a place to go to, and moved rapidly towards it, or stood around outside the few places that were still open—bars and convenience stores. Within a few minutes the bus turned into a side street, where it pulled into a diagonal parking spot outside a station and came to a stop with a hissing noise from its brakes.

The mother woke her son up and they got off; the salesman stood and waited for them to go by before walking down the aisle to the door. He said “Thank you” to the driver as he got off, which reinforced in Carl’s mind his theory about the man’s occupation; no one would thank a bus driver for taking him from one place to another who wasn’t trained to think that being obsequiously polite could help him get ahead in the world.

The driver pulled some suitcases out of the baggage compartment on the side of the bus for the few passengers who had checked them in Chicago, not knowing that the bus would only be half full, or perhaps not wanting to drag their luggage up into the bus. Then he started to take tickets from a line of new passengers that had formed outside, headed to stops on the next leg of the trip along the older, slower highway through the middle of the state, and not the interstate.

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He watched the people get on, trying to get a glimpse at them without looking them in the eye. He had been told by his mother growing up not to stare at people, but had fallen back into the habit at college; things were new and strange in Chicago, and he found himself gaping at individuals who would have been out of place in his little hometown. A black man in the bus station in Chicago had broken such a reverie by saying “Whadda you looking at?” before laughing to show that he wasn’t angry to be gawked at. “I’ll bet you’re a jitterbug,” the man had said as he had taken in Carl’s bright purple shirt and cowboy boots.

“I guess,” Carl had said sheepishly, then looked back down at the book—”The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”—he had brought along for diversion on the long trip, around eight hours.

A blonde woman climbed up the steps into the bus; she was attractive, and looked vaguely familiar, so he allowed his eyes to linger in a sidewise manner towards the aisle to get a better look at her. As the woman approached, their eyes met and she spoke.
“Carl?” she asked.

He said only “Yes” as he couldn’t place her at first.

“Jan—Jan Hohlinger.”

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“Hi Jan. I didn’t recognize you, out of context.”

“You don’t expect to see someone from your high school in a bus station two hundred miles away from home, do you?”

The bus was filling up and so the woman stepped out of the way to let others pass. “Is anybody sitting here?” she said, pointing to the seat on the aisle.

“No, go ahead.”

“Thanks.” She had a little pink overnight case, which she started to lift to the rack overhead.

“Let me do that,” Carl said, and he took the bag from her hands, lifted it up awkwardly over his shoulder and found a place for it between his own and another person’s things.

“Fancy meeting you here,” she said as she sat down. “You going home for Thanksgiving, I assume?”

“Yep.”

“And where are you now?”

“In Chicago—in college.”

“Better you than me,” she said as she put her ticket in her purse and otherwise got organized and settled in.

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“Do . . . do you live in St. Louis now?” he asked.

“I live in Kansas City. I was in St. Louis for a modeling job.”

“So you’re not a stewardess anymore?”

“I am, just trying to break into modeling full-time, make a little extra money. Being a stewardess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“It’s not?”

“You’re basically paid waitress wages in a flying restaurant. Back and forth all over the country all the time. It gets old after awhile.”

Carl was surprised to hear Jan’s cynicism. When she had started out as a stewardess four or five years before it was a matter of local pride; another young woman would follow her a few years later, but she was the first. It was taken as proof that the girls in their town were just as pretty as city girls, just as polished. They were flying to big cities in the U.S. and abroad.

“How about you?” she asked. “What year are you now?”

“This is my third.”

“So a junior. You gonna graduate on time, or are you on the six-year plan?”

“I’ll be out of there in four years. I can’t stand it.”

bus6

“Really? Why not?”

“Not a lot going on. Everybody studies all the time.”

“I remember you liked to party a bit in high school.” She gave him a sly smile. “You and Richard and Freddie used to hang around our place a lot.” Several years older, she and two roommates had been the first to rent an apartment and move out of their parents’ homes after graduation. It became a meeting place on weekends, and there was always beer brought by the older boys who came to call from the Air Force base.

“It was a good deal,” he said, smiling back. “Chip in a couple dollars and you didn’t have to hang around the liquor stores downtown to find somebody to buy booze for you. Plus TV and music.”

“It was a great little place. Nobody bothered us as long as we kept the noise down.”

“You guys ran a pretty tight ship. I remember you threw Freddie out one night when he got drunk.”

“He gets kinda foolish when he’s had too much to drink. He wanted to bring a girl over and use my bedroom. Fat chance of that.”

Carl grinned and shook his head at the thought of the ludicrous request.

bus8

“It’s like they say, a stiff dick has no conscience,” Jan said. He was a bit surprised that she would use such language in a public place, but he looked around and saw no one had heard her. She opened her purse, took out a compact, and applied some lipstick.

“How about you? Do you have a girl up there in Chicago?”

He hesitated; it was a source of some chagrin that he didn’t. There had been a girl his first year that he had pursued and won, then realized it was only because she was the most attractive woman in his crowd, not because he liked her. The relationship had ended abruptly, a poor reflection on his maturity in the eyes of his small circle of friends.

“Not really.”

“Nobody you like?”

“I’ve, uh, gone out with this woman I work with in the snack bar but she doesn’t want a relationship.”

“Why not?”

“She’s got a boyfriend back home, in Connecticut.”

bus7

“So? If you can’t be with the one you love—love the one you’re with, right?”

He shrugged. “I suppose that’s what we’re doing.”

“But you want to get serious?”

“I guess. When he comes to visit he moves in with her for a week, and I’m out. Once he’s gone I have to like, woo her all over again.”

“’Woo her.’ Sounds so old-fashioned—and formal,” Jan said with a laugh. “Is she a real serious person or something?”

“Yeah. She’s into like Indian mysticism, Eastern philosophy.”

“Oh my God,” Jan said. “You sure can pick ‘em. Well, I guess I can read my beauty magazine if you don’t like to talk to stewardesses anymore.”

“No, I feel the same way,” he said, trying to re-assure her. “She tried to get me to stop eating hamburgers.”

“And that’s where you drew the line?” she laughed.

“Yeah, well, that and other things.”

“Like what.”

“She burned incense in her bedroom.”

“That stuff’s too hippie for me, too.” She turned and looked at him. “I think you need to move back and find a normal woman.”

“You may be right. I suppose it depends on where I end up after college.”

“What are you studying to be?”

“Nothing in particular. Most people I know plan to keep going and end up as professors.”

“There’s no money in that. My sister divorced my brother-in-law ‘cause they’d been married six years and were still living in a little place like I used to have for God’s sake.”

They passed through the state capital, then rode in silence for a while. The road was dark, the lights were few and, it seemed, miles apart. “Are you going all the way to Kansas City?” he asked after a while.

bus5

“No, and I have to be careful I don’t fall asleep. My mom is picking me up at a flag stop.”

“What’s that?”

“If you want to get on the bus, you have to flag the driver down, it’s not a regular stop. If you want to get off the bus, you have to tell the driver.”

“She doesn’t live in Sedville?”

“No, she moved out here after I graduated from high school. She inherited my grand daddy’s farm. I better remind him now,” she said as she got up and walked down the aisle to tell the bus driver where she needed to get off.

“He had it on his clipboard,” she said as she sat down again. “It’s just a couple of miles away, I lost track of where we were going through all that farmland in the dark.”
She collected her things from the pouch in the seat in front of her and stuffed them into two bags she had brought with her, a small purse and a larger handbag. “Well, it was good seeing you again.”

“Same here. Best of luck with the modeling—maybe I’ll see you in a catalog someday.”

“Maybe even in my underwear,” she said with a mock leer. “And best of luck to you with that undecided girl friend of yours.”

“I think it will be over after this year.”

“Why’s that?”

“Her boyfriend is moving to Chicago. She’s going to live with him.”

“So . . . no chance to ‘woo’ her back, huh?”

“I guess not.”

“Probably for the best—if you ever want to eat a hamburger again,” she said with a laugh.

The bus slowed down at a wide spot in the road, where there was a plain street light and a car waiting. “That’s my mom down there,” she said. She stood up and he tried to help her with the suitcase, but she said “I think I got it” and was able to slide it off the rack with minimal effort, but with a clatter as it hit the bus floor harder than she expected.

“You take care, okay,” she said, as she leaned in closer and—to his surprise–kissed him.

“You too,” he said, over an unexpected lump in his throat.

“Bye,” she said with a little wave as she made her way down the aisle with some difficulty.

The driver helped her with her bags as she got off, then climbed back in. “Next stop Sedville,” he said, then sat down and put the bus in gear. They drove off and, as they moved again into the darkness of the countryside, he inhaled and smelled her perfume.

A Day at the Fair

The bus came by to pick the residents up early, around seven, so they could make the half hour drive to the State Fair and get them down to the carnival before it got too hot. They would all want to go down to the midway, where the calliope music and the rides got them excited; they were all just children, Sue Ellen thought, and she wanted them to get their fill of it before the sun was too high in the sky.

The residents had been allowed to withdraw ten dollars each from their accounts at the State Home for the Retarded; the nurses would bring a picnic lunch that they would spread out under the trees near the gate. After lunch they would walk through the Arts and Crafts building—the men liked to look at the model planes and cars and the tooled leather belts, the women liked the needlepoint and flower arrangements–and then head back.

Furman was one of the oldest of the males; he had been released to a job as a dishwasher at a country club where he could live in a spare room over the kitchen, but he had wandered off twice, once ending up in a whorehouse in a converted drag strip south of town. It was decided he needed to be back at the school.

Sue Ellen took one group of ten and entered the midway through the left entrance; Mary Louise took the others and started at the right entrance so that they wouldn’t block up the midway for the rest of the fairgoers. Sue Ellen was conscious of the stares as she made her way through the crowds, but her job was to watch her charges, and not worry about whether people thought she was retarded too. Still, every now and then she barked out an order—“We’re not going in that show, Nae Ann”—and she found herself wondering whether she spoke louder than was necessary in order to broadcast to the crowd that she was normal, like them.

She herded her group into a tent with coin-operated games. It was cool there, the games only cost a quarter, and there were no carneys to persuade the patients to spend more than they should in the hope of winning a big stuffed animal.

Lyle, a sandy-haired man of around twenty, went straight for the peep shows, the hand-cranked machines that showed an undressed woman who used curtains, fans and beach balls to conceal her breasts and groin from the viewer’s eye.

“Don’t spend all your money in one place, Lyle,” Sue Ellen said.

“Huh,” Lyle laughed back at her. “Why not?”

“Because there’s other things to do.”

A group of women was playing skee-ball, and strings of tickets issued from the coin box at the end of the game. “I get a prize!” one screamed as she pulled the tickets out.

“We all played,” another said. “We share.”

“Why don’t you let me hold them,” Sue Ellen said as she took the tickets from the woman. “We’ll get a prize on the way out. Okay, let’s buddy up for a second,” she called out to the group scattered throughout the tent. The teenagers firing guns at screens didn’t even look up.

“Who’s your buddy, everybody,” she said when the residents had assembled before her. Two by two, the men and women raised their hands to signal that they had found the person who they were assigned to as a partner. Everyone but Lyle, who remained at his peep show.

“Lyle, come over here.”

“In a minute.”

“Now.”

Lyle made his way over to where the others were standing. “Who’s your buddy?” Sue Ellen asked.

“Furman.”

“Where is he?”

“Don’t know.”

“Aren’t you supposed to stay together?”

“We were, then everybody came in here.”

“All right. Everybody go back to what you were doing,” Sue Ellen said. “I’ll look for him—stay with your buddies.”

The group dispersed back to their games, with the women who had been playing skee-ball rushing into a photo booth to have their picture taken. Sue Ellen went to the entrance of the tent and spoke to the man who was selling tokens.

“Did you see a tall man with a crew cut walk out of here?” she asked.

“What was he wearing?” the man asked.

“Grey pants and a white T-shirt.”

“I ain’t seen him.”

“I’m here with a group from the State Home for the Retarded. Can you watch them for a minute while I scout around a bit?”

“We’re not responsible for lost stuff.”

“They’re human beings—they all have tags on them so people will know where they’re from.”

“If I see any I’ll tell ‘em they can’t leave, how’s that?” Sue Ellen couldn’t tell whether the man was being sarcastic behind his sunglasses.

“That’s fine, thank you.”

“But we’re not liable if one of them wanders off, understand?”

“I understand.”

She walked out of the tent and looked back towards the midway entrance, trying to see if Furman had lagged behind them. She didn’t see him, and turned her head to look up at the half-way point of the midway where the “Club Ebony” show was set up at the bend. The show had apparently begun, as there was no one—not even the barker—in front of the stage.

She looked across the midway through the electric cables and trailers to see if she could see Mary Louise and her group. As she did so, she saw Furman standing talking to a man running a dart game, with big stuffed animals hanging down inside his booth.

“I’ve found him,” she said to the man selling the tokens. “I’m just going over there to bring him back.”

“Okay. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Sue Ellen scurried across the gravel to the booth where Furman was standing, his back turned towards her. The carney was talking patiently to Furman, explaining something to him, as Sue Ellen approached.

“You just missed that last time,” the carney was saying as Sue Ellen walked up. “Give it one more try and I’ll bet you get your girl a big teddy bear. C’mon.”

“Furman,” Sue Ellen said sharply as she approached. He didn’t turn around, and when she stood next to him she saw that his face was contorted with a look of doubt and regret.

“I don’t know,” Furman said to the carney. “I only got a dollar left.”

“Furman! You spent your entire allowance here?”

“Why don’t you just butt out, miss,” the carney said. “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

“He’s from the State Home for the Retarded. It’s not fair for you to take his money.”

“It’s a free country—let the man play.”

“He has the mind of a boy.”

“There’s plenty of fun for everyone,” the carney said into his microphone. “Win your girl a teddy bear, right here. Step right up.” The carney looked straight at Sue Ellen with dead eyes as he spoke, as if she were a lamp post.

“How can you live with yourself, taking money from the feeble-minded?” Sue Ellen said.

“Money was burnin’ a hole in his pocket,” the carney said. “I just put the fire out.”

“I think you owe him a refund.”

“No refunds. I’m just a poor-struggling carney, trying to make ends meet.”

“I want you to give him back his money.”

“It’s a dart game, ma’am. The rules are clear. You don’t need to be a genius to play darts.”

“I’m going to report you.”

“The office trailer’s up that way,” the carney said, apparently unconcerned. “If you have any complaints take ‘em up with management.”

“I will. Come on, Furman.”

Furman was in tears, aware that he had lost his money and afraid that he would be unable to buy a snow cone. “I only have a dollar left,” he said.

“I’ll take care of you,” Sue Ellen said.

As they made their way back to the game tent a shrill whistle went up and a cry of “Hey Rube!” was heard over the carney’s microphone. People stopped and turned towards Sue Ellen and Furman, and watched. She turned around and looked at the carney, who glared back at her with a grim smile.

Furman was crying now, embarrassed that he had lost all his money after being warned on the bus to be careful. “Can I get my money back?” he asked Sue Ellen.

“I don’t know. You stay here and when the others come around I’ll go to the office.”

Mary Louise and her group approached from the turn in the midway, and Sue Ellen beckoned to her. “Bring everybody into this tent.”

“Is something the matter?”

“Furman lost all his money at a clip joint. I’m going to the office to complain.”

Mary Louise ushered her people into the tent and Sue Ellen took off towards the office trailer, which was parked behind a row of game tents. She walked up the metal steps, opened the door and saw an overweight man seated at a round table, counting money as he smoked a cigar and cradled a telephone on his shoulder.

“Tell them they don’t play shifts like it’s a junior prom—they’re supposed to start playing when the place is empty, and stop when it’s filled up, okay? Talk to you later.”

The man snapped the phone shut and finished counting a handful of bills before looking up at Sue Ellen. “Can I help you?” he asked without looking up.

“I’m Sue Ellen Walton—I’m here with a group from the State Home for the Retarded,” she began.

The man rolled his eyes up and cut her off. “You don’t look it.”

She felt a surge of heat flowing upwards from her chest. “I’m a psychiatric nurse there . . .”

“Oh, okay, I got ya. Sal Giokaris. What can I do for you?”

“The man at one of your . . . clip joints took one of our residents for all his money.”

“Was it a game of chance?”

“It was some kind of dart game.”

“Did your . . . fellow say he’d been cheated?”

“No, he was in tears.”

“No use cryin’ over a silly game of darts. How much is he out?”

“Almost ten dollars.”

The man smiled, then started to laugh. “You gonna complain about ten lousy bucks?”

“It may not seem like much to you, but it was all this man had.”

“In the world?”

“No—all he brought with him today.”

“That’s different. If he lost his life savings I’d feel different.”

Sue Ellen stared angrily at the man, whose impassive face absorbed the force of her glare without changing expression. “So what do you want me to do?” he asked.

“I want you to refund his money.”

“I can’t do that. I got a lot of hungry carneys out there who need to eat.”

“You don’t have to cheat people to make money.”

“It ain’t cheatin’ just cause you don’t win. If I give him his money back, what’s to stop every hick on the midway from comin’ in here and asking for his dough?”

“Those people are different. Our residents don’t have the mental capacity to understand they have no chance of winning.”

“No chance? You see these girls walkin’ around the fairgrounds with those big teddy bears? Their boyfriends won ‘em fair and square.”

She started to speak, but stopped for fear she’d begin to cry. “Give me five dollars,” she said finally.

“No can do.” The man looked down and began to count his money again. “I’ll give you two tickets to the grandstand show.”

“We have to get these people back to the home this afternoon.”

The man gave out a sigh and looked up again.

“Two dollars. Take it or leave it.”

She looked him in the eye, and the warmth that had reddened her face flowed down into her knees. “I’ll take it,” she said.

The man pulled two singles off his pile of bills and laid them on the table. “I hope your day with Midland Amusements is a pleasant one,” he said mechanically.

Sue Ellen looked at the bills, then at the man’s head as he resumed his counting, trying to force him to acknowledge her anger. When he didn’t respond, she picked up the bills, turned around, and walked out onto the steps. She looked down towards the game tent and saw Furman standing outside, looking back at the booth where he’d lost his money. She felt a bit nauseous, and unclean.

In Training

Will got his job at the ice plant through his dad, who knew Old Man Cunningham, the owner. His dad told Mr. Cunningham that Will played football and wanted to build himself up; Mr. Cunningham didn’t have kids, but he was a big booster, and he tried to give the summer jobs to the football players. “Send him on down,” Mr. Cunningham said. “If he lasts ‘til August 15th,” when two-a-day practices started, “he’ll make the team.”

The first two days they put him to work painting the back side of the building, the part that faced the railroad tracks, where he couldn’t hurt anything but himself. He was up on a ladder in the hot sun all day, working with thick paint and an old brush. It was boring and he hated every minute of it. On the third day he helped unload a box car with frozen sides of beef—Cunningham told the foreman they weren’t making any money painting the back of the building. It was hard work—the sides of beef weighed seventy to eighty pounds apiece—and by the end of the day his front was wet from his shoulders to his knees. The older men were able to heft the beef around without getting themselves too wet, but he couldn’t because he only weighed a hundred and fifty pounds. That’s why he wanted to build himself up.

After a few weeks Mr. Cunningham figured out that Will belonged on the front dock, selling bagged, block and dry ice to customers, and pulling the 300-pound blocks through the chute. He could use tongs for all the heavy work, like loading blocks on the trucks for the poultry plant; he wasn’t big enough to be of much help unloading boxcars.

Most days it was Will and an older boy Mike, who was going to be a senior, in the front. Mike was a smart-aleck. If some poor hick came up to the dock and said he wanted a bag of party ice, Mike would draw balloons on the side of the bag with a pencil. If they were unloading watermelons to sell in the walk-in cooler, Mike would make a big show of accidentally dropping one on purpose, and they’d get to eat it for the rest of the shift. He showed Will how you could steal ice cream bars from the cold storage room, and he made fresh remarks to just about every customer when it wasn’t busy.

“Carl, your wife is like the State Fair,” he said one day to a farmer who drove up in a truck with a load of watermelons in the back and his fat wife in the front seat.

“How so?” the farmer asked.

“She just gets bigger and better every year,” Mike said, and the woman, not knowing or not caring that the joke was on her, gave Mike a big toothless grin.

When they worked the 2 to 10 shift together, Mike would pull the ice from the floor, bring it over to the scoring machine that would saw cuts in the blocks to make it easier to break it up into fifty and twenty-five pound pieces, and send it through the chute into the ice room. They’d load up a truck together and Mike would take it over to the poultry plant, where he’d unload it himself unless he could find someone to help. On the last run of the night, he liked to take Will over so they could unload quickly and go home.

One night a carful of Mike’s classmates pulled up to the dock and asked Will to send him out. Will went into the plant and yelled for Mike. He didn’t hear Will call over the noise of the compressor, so Will had to walk halfway around the plant to get him.

“Your friends are outside,” Will said loudly when he had caught Mike’s eye. Mike hauled a load of ice over to the chute and dunked it in brine to loosen it up, then went out to the dock.

Will went back to the ice room and began crushing and bagging more ice. He was supposed to bag three hundred bags a day, which if he did a pallet of fifty bags every hour for the first six hours, left him the last two hours to goof off. It was seven-thirty, and he only had one pallet left to go.

He was stapling a bag when Mike came in through the front door and stuck his head through the tarp curtain that hung between the walk-in cooler and the ice room. “Look what I got,” he said with a big smile on his face as he held up a six-pack.

“What is it?” Will asked.

“It’s malt liquor—good stuff.”

“Cool.”

“I’m gonna hide it here in the walk-in, and we can drink it when we make the last run tonight.”

“Sure,” Will said. He had tasted beer when he took his dad’s bottles back to the kitchen and drained the last sip, and he didn’t really like it. “What does it taste like?”

“Like beer, but better—not so sour—and stronger.”

“Okay—maybe.”

“No ‘maybe,’ boy. You’re comin’ with me to unload.”

“I meant ‘Maybe I’ll try some.’”

Mike looked at him with a sneer. “Do I detect a rookie drinker?”

“No—I just never had malt liquor.”

“You’re gonna have some tonight—unless you’re a pussy.”

Mike turned to go push the ice through the door with a sneering smile, and Will went back to bagging. He wanted to get drunk eventually, but not tonight, and not while he was in training. It was hard enough getting his running in every day when the shifts he worked were two-to-ten at night or six in the morning until two in the afternoon. He slept late when he worked the night shift, then it was too hot to run. If he worked the early shift all he wanted to do when he got home was take a nap.

The load of ice started coming in the chute and he grabbed his tongs to pull the blocks through. He had to pull them up the floor that slanted down towards the front-door, and he had to pull them out of the chute fast enough so that they wouldn’t crash into each other. If they did, they’d break and all they’d be good for was crushed ice; what they needed was enough block ice for the last load to the poultry plant. He was pulling a block up the floor when Mike stuck his head in the chute and yelled “Hurry up, pussy—I ain’t got all day.”

Will slid back down to the chute and pulled a block out of the way just as another was about to hit it. He pulled the second block out of the way down to the crushing machine so that the next block wouldn’t hit it.

When the last block was in the chute Mike turned off the conveyor and things quieted down. Will heard voices in the walk-in cooler and, when he went down to see what it was, saw two black guys rolling a watermelon off the dock and loading it into the trunk of a Thunderbird with a red body and a white top.

“Thanks, man,” the driver said. It was Zip Wilson, who worked at the plant when he needed money, and was in Mr. Cunningham’s good graces. “Be cool,” he said as the other two got in the car and they drove off.

Mike came out on the dock for a smoke and saw Will watching the T-bird drive away. “Was that Zip?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Will said. “He and his friends just took a watermelon. Is he allowed to do that?”

“He’s allowed if you want him to do things for you.”

“Like what?”

”Like buy me and my friends malt liquor, pussy.” Will was bigger than Mike, but didn’t want to get into it with him. “You ‘bout finished bagging ice?” Mike asked. ‘Cause I got one more load, then I’m done.”

“I have twenty more bags to do.”

“Until what?”

“Until I have three hundred.”

Mike looked at Will as if the younger boy were simple. “Don’t ever do three hundred bags.”

“That’s what Mr. Cunningham says I’m supposed to do.”

“So? If he told you to do a jackknife off the dock would you do that?”

“He’s paying me.”

“Tell him you can’t do it. He’s not gonna fire you. You’re just here for the summer.” Mike took a drag on his cigarette. “You’re gonna piss off Legs,” he said, referring to an older man who worked the day shift.

“Why?”

“Legs says if you ever do three hundred bags in a day, they’ll make you do it every day for the rest of your life.”

“So what does he do?”

“He does two hundred some, then looks busy doin’ something else. Or he finds somethin’ that’s broken, and goes in and tells Cunningham about it, and says he can’t do any more, or sets to work fixin’ it.”

“Oh.”

Mike threw his cigarette in the street, got up and went in the walk-in cooler. When he came back, he was holding two cans of malt liquor in his hands, and he popped one open, sending a spray of foam into the street.

“What’d you do—run this through the crusher?” he laughed as he held the can at arm’s length.

“I didn’t do anything with it,” Will said.

“Been bouncin’ around in two cars, then they threw the six pack up to me,” Mike said as he took a long sip. “That’s what did it. Here,” he said as he offered the can to Will.

“No, thanks.”

“See, I knew you were a pussy.”

“We’re out in public, you idiot.”

Mike looked up and down Main Street, which was deserted. “I think–the coast is clear,” he said facetiously. “Here.”

Will looked at him, then took the can and had a sip. It wasn’t bad—not as smelly as his dad’s Falstaff beer.

“Well?” Mike asked. “Whadda ya think?”

“Pretty good. I like it,” Will said.

“See—I told you. You don’t have to be a goody-goody all the time.”

“I’m not a goody-goody,” Will said defensively.

“Yes you are, but maybe I can cure you. Here . . .”–Mike said as he opened the other can and handed it to Will before turning to go back into the plant and pull the last load–“ . . . knock yourself out.”

“Thanks,” Will said without enthusiasm. He went back into the cooler, took a sip of the liquor, then set it down under the bench on which the watermelons sat along with the other cans. It would be just his luck for Old Man Cunningham to walk in and discover him, he thought. He took another sip, went back to bagging, and had his last twenty bags done and stacked before long. He heard the bell that signaled the last load of ice was coming through, grabbed his tongs and stuck his head through the chute.

“Send ‘em on in!” he said with a grin that didn’t feel like it belonged on his face. That must be the liquor, he thought. It wasn’t such a bad thing.

The blocks came through—six in all—then Mike came around in front and backed the truck up to the dock. “Let’s get ‘er done,” he said as he stuck his head through the front chute.

Will began pushing blocks through the door, starting with the rows that were closest to the chute. They developed a rhythm after that, with Will dragging a block down from higher up and sending it on its way with a push, and Mike grabbing it as it came out the door and using the momentum to get it onto the truck and sliding across the truck bed.

Mike had his can out on the dock and would take a swig from it whenever he gained a little on Will. “C’mon,” he’d yell into the chute. “I’m waitin’ on you.”

Will was sweating, and he had to take a break after a while. “I need a drink” he shouted out to Mike.

“I’m way ahead of you,” Mike called back through the hole. “We got two more rows to do then we’re outta here.”

Will took a couple of big sips from his can, imagining that was the best way to get drunk, which must be the point of drinking, he thought. The alcohol warmed him up and he felt himself sweating freely, but he found his feet slipping more as he pulled the last blocks down the slope to finish the load.

When he had finished he began to close up, turning out the lights and emptying the night’s cash into a coffee can—keeping five dollars to compensate himself for finishing his three hundred bags, now that he knew the day shift didn’t. He dropped the can in the hole in the office wall and, as he came around front, saw that Mike was pulling the ramp away from the truck and setting it up against the wall. “C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Will locked the office door and dropped the key through the slot, then jumped down in the street and started to climb in the cab.

“Did you get the booze?” Mike asked him.

“Christ, no,” Will said.

“And you just dropped your key through the slot, you dingle-berry,” Mike said. “I guess we’re up shit creek now. If Legs finds the beer he’ll take it, and if old man Cunningham finds it we’re dead.”

“Let me check,” Will said, and got out of the truck and vaulted back onto the dock. He tried the ice room door—it was still open. “We’re okay,” he yelled to Mike. “I forgot to lock the door.”

“Well hurry up you stupid shit.”

Will grabbed the cans, locked the door from the inside, climbed through the ice chute into the plant and walked around to the front door. He opened the door from the inside, took the keys outside with him, locked the door and dropped the keys through the slot again.

“What a fucking genius,” Mike yelled from the cab of the truck, and Will raced around the front and got in.

They turned left up Main Street and drove slowly so as not to rock the ice too much. They passed a bar where men were hanging around outside, drinking from long-necked beer bottles.

“That there’s a bucket of blood,” Mike said with a nod towards the bar.

“What’s that mean?”

“It means guys will sit there takin’ turns, waitin’ for the next guy to come in, then they’ll take a punch at him just for the hell of it.”

“Gosh,” Will said.

“’Gosh,’” Mike said, mocking him. “’Golly.’”

“Shut up.”

“Let’s go past the Sportsman’s Club.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t know what the Sportsman’s Club is? You are a rookie.”

“So what is it?”

“It’s a whore house, right over the bridge. I’ll show you.”

“Okay.”

They rumbled down Main Street to the railroad crossing at Ohio Street. “I can’t take the bridge with this load of ice,” Mike said. “We’ll cross here and drive up through the neighborhood.”

They crossed the tracks and turned right towards the Sportsman’s Club. A woman emerged from the darkness when they stopped at a stop sign. “Hey, baby, you lookin’ for some action?”

“Well, hello there,” Mike said out his window. “No, we’re just making an ice delivery.”

“Iceman don’t come out by my house anymore.”

“That’s cause everybody got a refrigerator but you.”

“Y’all got any money?”

“I’ve got five dollars,” Will said to Mike.

“I’ll do you for five dollar,” the woman said.

“He ain’t old enough and we ain’t got time,” Mike said. “Nice talkin’ to you.”

“You come back when you got yourself some money,” the woman said to Mike, then was off in pursuit of a car behind them.

“Don’t ever tell them you have money,” Mike said. “Their pimp will just take it from you.”

Will was silent; he apparently had misunderstood the woman. He thought she was asking for charity.

“For five bucks all you’re gonna get is a social disease. You want a high-class whore you need to go to Kansas City,” Mike said, sounding worldly. “Save your money ‘til you got a hundred.”

They took a left turn, then another, and made their way back to the poultry plant, where the lights were on for the graveyard shift. Mike pulled the truck down the road a bit, then backed it into the dock to unload. When they were close, he told Will to get out and open the back doors.

“How they hangin’?” a man in a yellow rubber slicker asked as Mike climbed up into the bay.

“I need two strong men and a boy with me when I go to the bathroom,” Mike said. “How about you?”

The man laughed. “Punk like you, don’t know yer ass from a hole in the ground.”

“At least I can do more than dream about it.”

“At least I got memories, which is more than you got,” the man said to Mike “Help me out here, kid,” he said to Will, and they dragged a metal ramp over to the truck and hooked it up. “Yer all set,” he said to Mike, and walked away.

“I’m pitching, you’re catching junior,” Mike said as he climbed into the truck..

Mike took his pair of tongs and began to push the blocks of ice down to Will at the end of the ramp, who had to drag them over to the cold room. Mike had brought his can around to the back of the truck and would take a sip whenever he had a lead on Will.

“Take your time, pal,” Mike called from the back of the truck. “I’m enjoying the refreshments.”

“I’m doing all the work,” Will said.

“Like hell,” Mike said. “Take a break if you want to.”

Will went around to the cab of the truck, got his can, and took a sip. He came back around to the bay where Mike was sitting on the loading dock.

“It’s good shit, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Will said.

“This is what being an adult is all about. This and pussy.” Mike said. Will drank silently, too quickly at first, then sipping slowly. “Are you workin’ through the fair?” Mike asked.

“I don’t want to.”

“Why not? That’s when you make the real money.”

“Football starts August 15th. I want to quit before then.”

Mike snorted. He was a baseball player. “Football’s too much like work for not getting paid,” he said.

“Did you ever play?” Will asked.

“About a week my sophomore year. I puked my guts up the first day. It was downhill from there.”

“I’ve played two years already. I was defensive captain both years.”

“Big deal,” Mike said. “It gets a lot tougher real fast when you’re playing varsity. You’re not playing against kids in your class. You’re playing guys who are two years older than you.”

“I can handle it.”

Mike laughed. “I’d like to see you go head-to-head with that 240-pound Samoan kid who flattened me.”

“When you’re up against somebody bigger than you ya gotta use leverage.”

“What position do you play?”

“Linebacker.”

“Okay, Tommy Nobis. Let’s see you stop a 300-pound fullback.”

Mike stood up, climbed back in the truck and positioned a block of ice at the top of the ramp with his tongs.

“Here comes Jim Brown,” he said.

Will took a position at the bottom of the ramp as if he were standing behind his defensive linemen, ready to stop the run or drop back to cover a pass. “I’m ready,” he said.

Mike pushed the ice down the ramp and Will stopped it with a forearm, then grabbed it and pulled it into the cold room.

“That’s called a forearm shiver,” he called up to Mike.

“Here comes Jim Taylor,” Mike said, and pushed a second block down the ramp. Will dropped his tongs and stopped it with his hands, then pulled it backwards with his tongs into the ice room.

They continued in this manner until the truck was unloaded. When Mike had pushed the last block off the truck, he jumped down and whistled loudly for the man in the yellow slicker, who turned when he heard and came back to the bay. Mike grabbed a clipboard out of the cab and handed it to the man, who made a perfunctory count of the blocks of ice, then signed.   Mike took the clipboard back, tore off a copy for the man and handed it to him, saying “Pleasure doin’ business with you, as always.”

“When’s Cunningham gonna call me ‘bout the dent you put in the side of the building?”

“That dent’s been there for years,” Mike said with a look of mock offense.

“It’ll be years before Cunningham will pay for it is what you mean. You boys be good, and if you can’t be good be careful.”

“We will,” Mike said. He seemed mature to Will, who hoped he would carry himself the same way when he was as old as Mike. They threw their tongs in the truck, Mike drove forward and Will closed the doors.

“Let’s drive around and finish the rest of the six-pack,” Mike said.

“I don’t want to drink three beers,” Will said.

“You don’t have to, I’ll drink four in the time it takes you to drink two.”

Mike drained the last of his first can and reached under the seat for another. “You need to get goin’ there buddy,” he said. Will took that as a challenge and drank the last of his can so fast that he almost spit it back up.

“That’s the spirit,” Mike said as he handed Will another can.

They drove around the north side of the tracks and drew stares from black men, young and old, walking the streets. At one point Mike slowed the truck down to greet one.

“Hey, Bird Dog!” he yelled out.

“Mr. Mike. What you been doin’ with yourself.”

“Little of this, little of that. When you comin’ back to work?”

“I caught on at the cemetery. Won’t be comin’ back.”

“What?”

“Too damn cold for me.”

“Nothin’s colder than a grave-digger’s ass.”

“You out in the fresh air at least. Not cooped up in some cold storage room rollin’ turkeys up a ramp.”

”I’ll grant you that. Where’s the action tonight?” Mike asked.

“Goin’ over to the Sportsman’s Club, where it usually is,” Bird Dog said with a smile.

“You wanta rub my head for luck?” Mike asked, leaning his head down a little.

“All I get from rubbin’ your head is a handful of lice.”

Mike laughed, then said “Take it easy” and put the truck back in gear.

The man waved to them and they drove off.

“That’s old Bird Dog, he used to work at the plant.”

“Pullin’ ice?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes they put him in the back, or in cold storage. I thought he’d be there forever.”

“Why?”

“’Cause whenever he got paid Friday he’d lose all him money playin’ craps Saturday, or get so drunk he wouldn’t even know somebody took his money. He’d have to go into Mr. Cunningham Monday morning and get an advance on his next paycheck. We called it ‘job security.’”

“Why?”

“Because they weren’t gonna fire him as long as he owed them money. You sure you don’t want this last beer?”

“Naw. I’m in training.”

“Okay. I’ll hide it in my coat and drink it up in my room.”

They drove around for awhile more, with Mike drinking steadily and Will nursing his beer. “You about ready to go back?” Mike asked.

“Sure, whenever you are.”

“My mom should be showing up pretty soon. Somebody picking you up?”

“Uh, no. My mom and dad are out of town–I was gonna walk home.”

“We’ll give you a ride.”

Mike drove up to Main across from the bar he had called the bucket of blood, took a right and brought the truck to a stop slightly before the ice plant, out of the way of morning traffic at the dock. There was a car parked in front of the plant with a woman in the driver’s seat and a girl in the back. The boys climbed out of the truck and Mike locked it, dropped the keys in the slot, then signaled for Will to follow him.

“C’mon, that’s my mom up there.”

They walked to the car and Mike got in the front seat. “Mom—this is Will.”

“Hello, Will,” she said. “Nice to meet you. That’s my daughter Teresa in the back seat.”

“Hi,” Will said as he got in the back.

“She don’t bite.”

The girl gave him a smile. She was wearing a wet bathing suit.

“We went over to the town pool to cool off,” the girl said. “We don’t have air condition.”

“Oh,” Will replied.

“Do you?” the mother asked him.

“We have one in each bedroom, and the living room downstairs.”

“Hoo-wee,” the mother said. “What does your daddy do?”

“He owns a store downtown.”

“Mom—please,” Mike said. “I have to put up with this dipshit all day long—don’t encourage him.”

“Well, I was just complimentin’ his family is all. No need for you to be a smart-mouth.”

“Just drive,” Mike said as he looked out the window.

“Aren’t you gonna take your coat off?” his mother asked him.

“It takes me a while to warm up after spending all day in the cold,” he replied. Will knew he was hiding the last beer.

“Where do you all live?” Mike’s mom asked.

“Over on Broadway.”

“There’s some nice homes over there,” she replied.

“I know your sister—she’s head cheerleader ain’t she?” the girl asked him.

“That’s right.”

“Teresa, be quiet,” Mike said to his sister. “Don’t let her attack you,” he said to Will. “She’s a nympho.”

“Shut up!” the girl snapped at Mike.

“What kind of grades do you get?” Mike’s mother asked him.

“He gets his name in the paper for Honor Roll,” the girl volunteered.

“I wished my kids got good grades,” Mike’s mother said.

“You can let me off here,” Will said.

“I thought you lived on Broadway,” Mike said.

“I do, but I want to walk from here—clear my head.”

“Okay—whatever suits your fancy,” Mike’s mother said.

She stopped the car and Will got out and closed the door behind him. The girl smiled broadly at him, and he gave her a polite smile back. “Thank you very much for the ride,” he said as he looked over Mike at the mother.

“You’re very welcome—any time.”

“See you tomorrow,” Mike said. “Same shit, different day.”

“Mike!” his mother exclaimed.

“You’re right, mom,” Mike said. “I should wait ‘til I get home to talk like that.”

“See you tomorrow,” Will said to Mike.

“Okay.”

The car drove off and Will waited until he saw the tail lights glow brighter as the car came to a stop. It turned left on Lamine to go to Mike’s house. He set himself, took a deep breath and started running, because he was in training.