a short story
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window. Bus window. Open or smudged, a
view of Milwaukee for Frank Zindler coming from the jail
that was usually very dull. The street with its small
stores, bars, some apartments above, old
houses brutally close to the traffic. Side
streets with rows of more plain, dirty houses.
Lots of trash cluttering the gutters. But it was
spring, a warm out-of-focus day, already hazy with traffic adding to its share with exhaust.
The diesel smell of the bus through the window seemed
to be blended with that of hot tar.
New activity on the streets, and he turned his thin
face almost dreamily to feel the breeze through the
partly-opened grimy window of the bus, finding
everything he saw quietly absorbing. The few trees in
sight were putting out lots of new leaves.
It even fuckin' smells like spring, he thought. Maybe
it was lilacs, like he used to break off in purple bunches
for his mother to stick in vases around the kitchen of
their upstairs flat.
Of course, every minute on the bus was a minute away
from jail for Frank, but that didn't seem so important.
Jail was all right, at least if you were a Hubie. They let
him out to go to work, and the rest of the time he played
cards and slept. And there were a lot of good guys in
there. Roger Sharhag he knew from way back, back
to when they both had paper routes from the same station
on Hopkins Street. The colored guys pretty much kept
to themselves unless you fucked with them. But he liked
to stay on their good side, even to be hip enough to drink
at a colored bar like Curt's Tap on Lloyd Street.
The Huber Law lunch on the seat next to him rattled
under his resting left hand, the lunch that managed to
look different and official even though it was just in a
brown paper bag like everybody else carried to work.
But it was an unused unwrinkled bag, folded down too
neatly and stapled shut, and it was a good reminder of
the jail and Mr. Huber's law -- whoever Huber might
have been -- that let Frank out to go to his job every day
at the can company so he could support Dorinne and the
As the bus growled with its familiar rising pitch
through the gears he gave the lunch the sneer he felt it
deserved and started to push it through the window gap.
He thought about it, remembering the dour, somehow
official-looking face he'd seen on the bus driver when
he got on at State Street, squeezed it as hard as he could
with one hand and shoved it back far under the seat.
Two baloney sandwiches, he knew, and a withered apple
and a hard-boiled egg. He never even looked any more.
But he had to take it, and they made him pay for it too.
But he'd get something decent from the vending
machines at work.
He gazed out the window, relaxed, his narrow body
slipping further down in the seat. He wondered when
Dorinne would come to pick him up with the car. One of
these mornings soon, he hoped. He didn't mind not
seeing her for a while, her with her whiny voice, but if
she picked him up he'd have time to stop and catch a few
at Curt's, enough to get high if he drank fast, and maybe
shoot some pool, too, before he had to get to work.
Christ, he wanted to get drunk, it had been so long.
He knew how it would hit him, the early-morning two or
three double shots of Phil Boileux on an empty stomach,
his skin still dull and grainy from sleep, tight around the
eyes, stretching over the burning brandy mixing with the
warm sunlight coming through Curt's window till he was
stretched tight and floating on light feet out the door and
into the car. Then he could look at everything, Dorinne
and the can company -- the can company where the
never-ending thump of presses and shears and the chatter
of millions of cans turned your eardrums into stone if
you weren't careful, and the sweat and grease on your
skin left you feeling like a piece of scrap aluminum in an
oil bucket -- like it was on the other side of his windshield
and he was in his car just driving through cozy and in
control of everything.
Even now without drinking he could almost imagine
himself high. The heat, even though still barely
comfortable this early in the morning, seemed to press
the air into sheets of shimmering glass in front of him. He
watched through them, and the neighborhood where the
bus was now was even more beckoning. It was less
rundown here, more white, here was where he grew up,
he knew the whole city but this was where he started.
There's Eddie Lancin's Tavern. A sign in the gravel
parking lot: CAR PARKERS
DAY OR NIGHT
He was never quite sure what that meant. A job
parking cars, or an offer to rent spaces? Of course, it
couldn't be a job -- but who would rent a space during the
day in this part of the city? Third shift workers, maybe.
American Motors had a lot of them, and he'd worked
short third himself -- six and a half hours for eight hours
pay -- whenever he could at the can company. Even
though it had probably fucked up his natural internal
clock so that a normal sleeping schedule was still hard to
go back to.
And Laessig's Tavern, where he had shoveled snow
and stocked the coolers and separated bottles under the
chute in the basement, scratching tax stamps with a
church key because of the government.
His stepfather, who held a regular job as a cook --
sometimes even a chef -- had also tended bar there part
time, and once -- crouching down next to an opened cooler
behind the bar -- Frank had heard him talking to some
lady on a bar stool about how she let him take her home
one night, why not tonight?
Frank never said anything about it to anybody, not
even his mother after those times he knew they were
fighting and his stepfather was complaining about
everything -- his mom's lack of sexiness, for one,
Frank figured, from the way she'd push his stepfather
away if he tried to grab her someplace when she was
doing chores, like the supper dishes.
Frank hated to see her touched like that; she was
obviously embarrassed for him to be there. Still, she
embarrassed him, too, in the oppressive heat of summer
days walking around the kitchen in just a white bra on
top. He didn't know much about bras, but he thought the
idea was they should cover everything inside like tents;
hers just overflowed in bulging masses. He did his
best not to look, but could never bring himself to mention
In fact, there was one time he was sure she was
practicing what she thought was enlightened sex
education: She had timed it so that when he came out
of the bathroom she strolled stark naked across the
kitchen -- dark pubic thatch unmistakable -- causing first
a terrific jolt, especially since otherwise she tinted
her hair, Auburn she called it, with that awful-smelling
henna that permeated the house, then blankness as he
refused to think about it.
And he had already been getting hints from Jerry
and Dick Dahl from the house whose windows just across
the narrow side yard lined up with his, about the summer
show she gave them in her bra, though he figured they
didn't really want to tip him off, either, and for a while
he didn't get it . . .
But that was another of the old man's gripes: Frank
monopolized the bathroom with lengthy showers -- and
facing and lowering the focus of the shower head and
its sharp spray could occasionally bring him to ejaculation,
prolonging the washup -- and had lifted a few cans of beer
from the refrigerator when he thought they wouldn't be
missed -- bringing criticisms usually relayed through his
mother. There were even imaginary plots when they
supposedly talked about the stepfather behind his back,
leading her in arguments to the point where his stepfather
said that he felt like hitting her when she would get "that
look" on her face.
Still, Frank never gave up on the idea that she might
really want to know about the woman, though his
mother never did get hit. After divorcing his alcoholic
father she had learned to take care of herself -- especially
with a war on -- and wouldn't have put up with actual
Then Locust crossed Hopkins, the wheels of the bus
pounding along down the street, jarring at potholes. Like
stomping a body, he thought. He'd been jumped once in
high school getting off a few stops farther -- for some
reason he'd been a real smart-ass in those days until he'd
learned a lesson or two, and the two guys he'd never seen
before who were pissed off at his cutdowns followed him
down his street until he could take a few smashes to the
He'd hurried through the house with his already
swollen lips, not speaking to his mother and stepfather
in the kitchen with their questioning looks; then he heard
"Frankie --" she had said tentatively. After a pause,
they had looked at each other across the table, Hamm's
beer bottles in front of them. His mother was dutiful
about joining his stepfather when he came home late from
work, even getting out of bed to sit up with him.
"Well, he's a pretty good-looking guy," said his
stepfather. "Probably a fight over some girl."
Actually, he hadn't been seeing anybody; the guys on
the corner outnumbered the girls, who generally had
their pick using their own obscure reasoning. If they
liked you they could cling like glue, though none ever
admitted to anything but necking. And if not, everybody
was just buddies, and girls not in the clique were kept out
of their little gang . . .
How many years had he taken the No. 12 route? It
had still been a streetcar ride to and from North Division
or the restaurant on the corner of Center Street and
Teutonia where he washed windows and swept up for a
few bucks. The clumps of women from Briggs &
Stratton -- it was the 50s, not too long after the war --
looked tough and worn out in babushkas and leather
jackets like men crowding aboard in the afternoon rush.
Past the grade school with the new addition cutting
into the old black tar playground, clean and
cream-colored and small against the massed gray bricks
of the old building. Right next to it was Fifteenth Street
going one-way south, where he was in that accident with
Grant Scherrer, near the beauty shop with the large
glossy pictures in the window of Negro women with
perfect shiny black or red hair and pretty faces. It used
to be a television and radio repair place and he
remembered sitting in Grant's old Buick taking the
corner from Hopkins at about forty past the triangle with
the stone eagle and the flagpole through the stop sign.
The car coming on their right hit and the door on his
side bulged hard in against the seat, up to where it was
separated from the muscle of his thigh by only the
thickness of his pants, but not hurting him. They kept
going: Grant had been on probation, and they were both
But the driver of the other car, a tough bony old
carpenter, Frank remembered, who drove the Kaiser
because of the roomy trunk where he could put all his
tools, got Grant's number after all, in spite of his broken
arm, and it cost Grant -- his lawyer running back and
forth to Judge Krueger's chambers -- four hundred bucks
cash to the judge to stay out on probation.
Then the bus was at Twenty-first Street exactly,
where he used to live, close enough to the Auer Avenue
school playground that he could go home for lunch.
Paying little attention to the soap operas his mother
listened to on the kitchen radio, like Ma Perkins and
Stella Dallas. Just as in the mornings, when he ate his
eggs to Coffeehead Larsen and his Sunny Side of the
Street theme song on WEMP . . .
An old man with a cane and a large nose like a soft
piece of strange ripe fruit got on at the bus stop he knew
so well, near the low concrete wall holding in the mound of
earth and grass that belonged to the corner house. And
there was the metal garage by the house where Carol
used to live, what was her last name? -- the one with the
brown hair and the big tits. Doug's sister. Since he was
twelve he'd often gone to sleep picturing how to tie her
up and drag her into the garage and strip her without her
knowing who it was, play with those two mounds, look at
Often in his dreams then there were naked girls,
usually in groups like in showers or locker rooms, but
he'd wake up realizing they were walking around hairy
there, but with dicks -- maybe because he'd never actually
seen a grown naked woman.
Of course, he could barely say two words to her, and
he rarely glimpsed her alone. Just in the cluster of
neighborhood kids of varied ages who sat on summer
nights on someone's lawn or steps, maybe talking about
the Hit Parade last night on TV, passing along dirty lyrics
to "On Top of Old Smoky" or something:
On top of Old Smoky
All covered with snow
I lost my true lover
For fucking too slow. . . .
The thought made him smile now. Kids were sure
stupid, all right.
As the bus pulled away he looked up the street where
he used to live -- his block was on a slight hill -- and
thought of the things they did when they were really
young. A block over was the steeper hill and what they
called Suicide Alley, where they used to go sledding --
often ending up out in traffic. Or they could throw
snowballs at cars from partway up, best when thick
falling snow could obscure them from drivers while the
headlights showed them the shapes to aim at. But always
ready to run like hell if a driver circled around to come
down the alley behind them. That was part of the
excitement, though it was hard to tell why, and they
didn't break any windshields that he knew of.
But usually when he remembered when he was much
younger it still only went back to the first daring more
adult things like drinking pilfered beer and smoking and
before that jacking off in the houses they made out of
cardboard packing boxes in somebody's back yard. A few
of them did it to each other, but he could never touch
another guy's prick. The idea was creepy. He was glad
to find out he had the biggest one, though -- especially
since he would stay hairless well after most of the guys in
his gym class.
But now he was thinking of even earlier days, when
they played games. Only the polio scare of the early
'fifties could keep them wistfully imprisoned in their
Kick-the-Can, and there was that game with bikes,
Chase they called it, a tag game played by teams on
wheels ranging through the neighborhood. And another
one they invented -- Yard-Running, or Fences, or
The picture in his mind of the street as it had been
under the climbing sun of the still-misty morning
remained with him after the new diesel bus left the
corner behind. Damn, the window was rigged so you
couldn't even push it up more than a few inches.
The bus had just pulled out next to the Texaco station
on the corner across from the large two-family house
where little Stevie used to live, next to Dougie's, the last
house on the downhill-sloping block of yards and fences
in between where they played the game, the game he
couldn't remember the name of.
He remembered walking up the alley, the whole
ragged bunch of them. Pat and Freddy, the two brothers
-- Irish and German they were -- one a red-head
and the other with black curly hair. Pat, the bastard, still
owed him a quarter from the time Frank bet him he would
hang upside down by his knees from the top of the
playground swings, and then backed out of paying. Frank
never spoke to him again, hating him even more when he
heard they both became cops. He was glad when he heard
Pat had the smallest dick of any of them.
And there was Stevie the crybaby, and Doug who could
beat up anybody, and skinny Alan whose family kept his
wizened old grandmother with the cancerous sore on her
face with them in the house on Twentieth Street looking across to Union Cemetery. The fenced-in
area with bushy thickets around the edges
obscuring the tombstones seemed huge to
kids, going on for blocks.
And there was his friend Donnie and
himself and the rest, wearing $1.98 Indian
moccasins or twelve-dollar engineer boots or whatever
they were all wearing then. Lining up at the top of the
block and taking off down through the yards, jumping and
climbing all the fences.
You had to go in a straight line, no matter what was
in your way. It was a sort of a race, the one who
finished first was best, but it was more than that. It took
guts to run through some of the yards, but they could get
up enough nerve to do it together, trampling everything
in their way and yelling and breaking things.
"Hey, bastard, betcha never get past Bublitz's."
"Go to hell, willya, see that flower pot by Dorn's?
I'm gonna -- "
"Man, that one by Bublitz's is a bitch!"
"C'mon, dammit, let's go -- "
People hollered and came out of their houses, and men
chased after them in some yards where the grass was
perfect, where no kids lived, one especially, where there
was a stiff wire fence with sharp points, painted green.
The wooden picket fences were easy, and some were
even sawed-off smooth on top. Some yards had hedges --
two yards had hedges, come to think of it, one of them
where the people who hated kids lived, who were
supposed to be so rich -- and they crashed through them
getting scratched and grinding their feet into flowers and
soft turned earth.
The same dirt where other times they would pull up
carrots and kohlrabi and grab tomatoes in the dark.
Some yards had trees, of course, even some stunted fruit
trees like plum and crabapple whose output withered and
rotted on the ground. More gingerly in their own yards,
they whooped on, maybe swinging on a clothesline if
The saggy wire fence by the house where the old
crazy woman lived was easiest. Not that she cared
whether anybody was in her yard or not. Seeming
incredibly ancient and always silent and near motionless
in a shapeless black dress, she was hardly ever seen
outside, just looking through her window, though she was
rumored to go out and kiss the sidewalk at the sunrise.
A good trick for her, when you thought about it.
And there was the hardest of all, the challenge, the tall
Gothic iron fence that stuck its spears up close to the
lower end of the block.
You had to climb it and put your feet between the
black-painted spears at the slippery top and jump off,
and Frankie riding in the bus to work at American Can
Company sixteen years later could still feel the sickening
pull of the spear at the cuff of his pants as he just made
it every time. He shrugged a little, thinking how far
away it all was now.
A cute young chick, probably on her way to high
school, with puffed-up black hair and a short skirt got
on the bus at Capitol Drive. Smooth shapely calves -- he
didn't mind them a little full and muscular as long as the
ankles tapered down, like Judy Majkowski's from roller
skating at the Riverside rink -- and a round, bouncy little
rear. He'd sure stick her if he had the chance. Why did
he ever marry Dorinne, anyway? Well, she could drink
beer as fast as he could, and that made her seem exciting
at the time, he guessed. And she liked him in bed and
didn't mind sucking his cock. The first one -- though he
kept that to himself -- before they ever screwed, even
Eventually he realized it was her way of never having
to fuck, though he broke her down after several months
of her insisting she didn't screw around. He liked that
she could always come now, and she was about as pretty
as anything he could ever get, and a real virgin, so he
owed her something; getting pregnant added to it. And
he believed she hadn't planned that, though he had
wished there was an easy way to do something about it.
Maybe Dorinne would pick him up from work tonight,
if she could get a sitter. But she was so damn lazy, didn't
care whether he had any fun or not.
He thought about Dorinne, and Carol from the old
neighborhood, getting more horny. If he hadn't gotten
busted for that beer party, busted for having underage
chicks in the house he and Grant kept for a party house,
he might be getting that Carol right now, if he could find
her someplace. He watched the girl's feet stepping on
dirty transfers littering the corrugated black floor.
That game, he wondered again, what was it called?
Yard-Running? Fences? He remembered when they'd
had to stop for a while. Ending up in a heaving laughing
heap in Stevie's yard at the bottom of the block, wary of
pursuers. They could always disappear into block after
block of houses and alleys if they crossed Hopkins.
But once looking back to see one of them -- was it
Alan? Stevie? -- hanging stuck by his armpit on a
curlicued point of the tall ugly fence. He was screaming,
but somehow it didn't really seem like sounds he was
making. Maybe it was the distance and the high pitch
of his young boy's voice.
There was his round tense mouth and it seemed
like big red balloons that floated up in the air and hung
there and broke. They watched from the distance while
an adult finally lifted him off, and the balloons were
gone and whoever it was on his way to the emergency
The bus stopped and started again, now leaving behind
the Hop Inn at Keefe Avenue. It looked like a
remodeled brick bungalow. Frank knew they had a good
pool table there. He wondered what would happen if he
didn't go to work one day. He'd heard of guys getting
away with it for weeks. His own father had walked away
from the House of Correction one Thanksgiving Day and
never went back since his mother didn't think it was
worth the effort to have him picked up again for the few
bucks child support he was supposed to pay, but never
He needed the job to pay for the car Dorinne drove,
but maybe he'd try it.
Better there than Curt's, he decided. So far he'd
stayed away from Curt's since New Year's eve, when one
guy had shown a gun around getting ready to shoot into
the air and another light-brown burly-looking cat with a
thin moustache announced to no one in particular that he
was going to kiss all the blonds at midnight. While Frank
didn't know if that meant himself, he couldn't be sure,
and what the hell could he do if Dorinne with her
fake-blonde hair was actually singled out? There was
one other blonde white woman there, trashy as hell.
They were with Donnie Groeling and his girlfriend
Lorri, and without talking about it they quickly found a
reason to all slam their beers and get back on the road
while trying not to look hurried. No one ever mentioned
it, but it just didn't seem like it was a good place to go
after that . . .
Finally, at the end of the line north of Silver Spring,
he got off the bus, walking toward the expected mass of
noise that was the factory, like iron junk being forever
poured out of a galvanized bucket.
He threw his balled transfer towards a sewer and
unbuttoned the front of his shirt in the now-hotter sun, a
white T-shirt underneath -- Christ, he'd sweat when he
got inside -- and it momentarily ballooned in a wind gust.
Damn, the dampness was building too and his Levi's felt
sticky inside the crotch already, where he would turn red
and raw if he couldn't get one of the cooler machines, like
His ear plugs, standard equipment though some guys
liked to seem too tough to wear them, dangled in their
green plastic container from a belt loop.
He figured he had enough time after the time clock
to walk the longer route inside past the end-stamping
machines where one girl, tall and thin but with a great
ass, usually in tight pedal-pushers, generally seemed to
hang around. She smiled a lot, with a pixie-cute
face -- always wearing on her black hair the blue mesh
cap with the short bill issued to the women. Lips so red
he could usually spot her head bobbing around through
the forest of oily machinery.
He wondered if she ever went out drinking after work.
What the hell was the name of that game, he thought.
Fences? Yard-Running? Oh well. He walked through
the gate in the high gray wire fence toward the factory,
toward the heat and din, the smell of lacquer and the
never-ending rush and clatter of steel cans.
good night Irene good night