Watertown, Chapter 7, Big Monty
“Well, lover boy, you gonna sleep your life away or what?”
“I think he’s dead," said another voice.
The first voice laughed, “Yeah, he’s dead all right, dead drunk. Did ya’ see that jug on the front porch. This man is in for a real shock this morning, that is if we can wake his ass up.”
“Wake him up MJ, come on, I’m hungry,” whined the second voice.
Again, Jack felt a boot in his side.
“What’s the big idea,” he said, slowly opening his eyes. Somehow he must have dragged himself inside the house because he was now on the couch. And two figures were coming into focus.
Jack looked up and saw a tall, beefy, bearded man with very white teeth, hovering over him like a doctor in an emergency ward. It was Big Monte.
Jack shot up to an upright position.
“Hey, Monte Joe!” Monte turned to the other figure, a thin wiry man standing off to the side by the fireplace smoking a Pall Mall.
“See, I told you he was dead – dead drunk last night. What a bum.”
Jack shook his head and ran his fingers over his burning eyes. His sides ached.
"Hey, where's Charley? You seen my dog?" Jack asked.
“Nope, weren't no dog around when we got here. Hey, K-Todd. I think this man needs a feeding. Christ, Jack, you need to take better care of yourself.”
“Agreed,” K-Todd said, puffing his cigarette.
Jack started to rise, but then he abruptly sat back down on the couch. When he breathed out, he could smell the whiskey of his own breath. He started to feel sick.
Monte Joe stretched out his hand and yanked Jack off the couch.
“Come ‘ere squirt. Let’s take a look at you.”
Jack wobbled and nearly fell back down. Monte lifted him back up again.
“Whoa there, Nelly, straighten her out.”
“The room’s spinning,” Jack said. K-Todd walked up to help Monte hold Jack up.
Jack squinted at K-Todd.
“K-Todd? That you?” Jack asked.
K-Todd threw a disgusted glance at Monte Joe.
“Oh, this polecat is through, Monte. Let’s just throw him in the hog trough.”
“Aw, shut up,” said Monte Joe, looking directly into Jack's eyes. Both were the same height, but Jack as lean as he was, was half the size of Big Monte.
Monte looked like he could pick Jack up, roll him into a ball and drop him into his shirt pocket.
“Oh fellas, I am feeling mighty, mighty puny,” Jack mumbled. “I feel like a monkey on a string. You sure you didn't see my dog?”'
“Nope. And you look like something I hit on the road last night. Maybe I hit your dog. Was he a scrawny mutt like you?"
Jack frowned. “Stop it," he said. "So how'd you know I was here, anyway?"
"Oh, we have our ways, we have our ways," Monte said with a wink.
"A little birdie flew in my window last night and she told me."
"Old Man Pope called my pa this morning looking for a drill bit," K-Todd answered. "He said you blew in last night."
Jack sat back down. He reached for his socks and put them on. The other two watched him put on his boots.
Jack walked down the hall. “Make yourselves at home,” he said. “I’m going to soak my head, okay.”
As he staggered down the hall, he heard Monte’s voice boom back,
“Yeah? Well, hurry up. We got a hankering for ham and eggs down at the Red Ball. Now hurry your ass up, you ham and egger, so we can get a move on.”
“Yeah,” K-Todd repeated.
Jack heard Monte tell K-Todd to shut up. He laughed and walked over to the kitchen sink. He turned on the tap and dunked his head into the single tub.“
Yow!” he shouted. The water dug like icicles drilling into his head. After a few seconds, Jack brought his head out of the sink. He grabbed a dishtowel and wiped his hair, now dripping wet. He opened his eyes twice, and the world came back into focus. He heard the front door slam and boots walk out onto the porch.
“Hey, where you guys going?” he shouted.
“MJ went down to the truck for some smokes. Huurt up, Franny won’t have anything left if we wait any longer.”
“Hey, Todd, go screw,” Jack sparred back, good-naturedly. “Say, what time is it, anyway?”“It’s time to go,” Todd shouted back.
“It’s half past seven. Now, come on, we gotta git.”
Jack finished drying his hair. Then he went upstairs and grabbed a shirt from his old bedroom. He went back downstairs and walked into the front room just as Todd threw his cigarette butt into the fireplace.
“Nice manners,” Jack said. Together they exited the house. Jack stopped at the edge of the stairs. The sky was bright blue and cloudless. The hills as far as the horizon spread were green as all the trees were fully budding. Jack could see patches of fog in some of the hollows, but they were fast burning off. Monte was in the truck, on the driver’s side, looking up at Jack and K-Todd.“Come on, boys,” said Monte. “Let’s eat.”"Hold on a minute," Jack said. "I gotta find Charley." He called out for the dog several times. Nothing happened."Damn dog," Jack muttered to himself. He buttoned his shirt as he went down the wooden stairs of the porch. K-Todd followed. They both got into the truck with Monte Joe, K-Todd squeezing in the middle. As they drove off, Monte glanced over at Jack."Sorry to hear about your ma," he said. K-Todd sullenly nodded his head.Jack stared out the window."Monte, you gotta take me back to town today, can you do it?""Sure, now what town would that be, Little Rock, Baton Rouge, Beaumont?""St. Michaels, you big jerk," Jack said, grinning back. Then his smile disappeared. "Yeah, St. Michaels, to the Sisters' Hospital.""Sure. K-Todd, can you take over for me today? I'll run him in right after we eat."K-Todd stared straight ahead. "Yeah, I'll do it, but you gotta buy me breakfast, though."They drove in silence for the remainder of the trip. After about ten minutes, they drove up to the Red Ball Cafe.They got out and went inside. Nearly every spot was taken. The booths were filled and the only place to sit were several stools planted firmly in front of the horseshoe counter. As Jack, Monte and K-Todd strolled in, a rowdy chorus of hellos rose up from the din of men crowding in the restaurant. Monte led the way inside and just about every man in the room either looked up to grin back at him or rose to stretch out a hand or pat him on the back. “Hey big un,” “Hey there, partner,” and a litany of other greetings and nodding heads welcomed the trio like a duke and his priests entering the castle after a long absence.“Hiya hiya, hiya,” Big Monte boomed back. Most of the men either wore blue-jean overalls or dungarees. The lot of them had been up before sunrise, milking cows or fixing their tractors, so that a smell of warm, sour manure, and diesel fuel mixed in with frying grease wafted in the air.“Well, look who just rambled in, and now what’s that you dragged in with you here?” Franny Miller, stood behind the counter and smiled back at the three young men, who now sat down before the counter. “Welcome home, Jack flack,” Franny said. Sit down, sit down. Have some coffee. Morning K-Todd, morning Monte.”Franny Miller was a tall, thin but handsome woman in her early fifties, with high cheekbones and big blue eyes that could turn instantly into slits so sharp they could stab you without looking. But when she laughed, she would let out a big guffaw and would slap your back, as she was doing right now to Monte. She withdrew the coffeepot, and bent down to look at Jack.“You sure could use some meat on yer bones there little beanstalk,” Franny said, letting out another guffaw. Monte nodded his head. K-Todd remained silent. A chorus of laughter from across the room echoed back.“Aw, Franny,” said Jack. “You knew I came back to pull you out of this snakehole, didn’t you?” Jack answered back slyly. “This old bear Monte won’t make you honest.”“That’s enough of that, I’d say. You’re just wasting your time trying to save an old hashslinger from Little Rock like little old me. Besides, I’d snap you in two.” More guffaws followed as several other men around the counter joined in the hooting laughter. “Now, what can I fix you up for on this bonny bright blue morning?” Franny asked. Behind her, the two cooks, one a young, thin Mexican boy and the other a tall, stooped man huddled together in front of the grill, and with their spatulas in hand, furiously were turning over mounds of frying eggs and sausages.Jack sipped his coffee, feeling a bit better than when he had been so rudely awakened. Big Monte ordered first, splaying his meaty fingers on the counter.“Six eggs and a hamsteak, Franny.”Todd stubbed out a spent cigarette into an ashtray, “A couple of eggs, sunny side up and a ham steak. And some grits.”Jack looked up. “I’ll take the Manhattan breakfast, darlin.”Franny stopped in her tracks. “Now, what in Hades would that be?”Jack shot a look to Monte. “Oh come on, Franny. You know, ten cigarettes and a cup of coffee.”Franny stayed silent for a long minute. Her eyes narrowed, and then she leaned back and sputtered and she started laughing. “Ho, ho, ho, we got a comedian here fellas. Manhattan, my ass. Maybe Manhattan, Kansas.” And after another laugh, Franny shouted out the breakfast orders. “Now, come on Jack, what can I get you.”“Give me some flapjacks, bacon and scrambled eggs.”“Order in! Cake and eggs and a side of bacon.”Jack swiveled sideways on his stool to gaze over the room. There were at least forty men in the small café. Most of them were wearing cowboy hats or baseball caps. None were bareheaded. Franny had one other waitress to help her out and the young girl scuttled in and out of the sea of legs tumbling out from the booths. Out the glass window that served as the front of the Red Ball, trees were bending in the gentle wind. The view opened out over a wide valley that fell below and sprawled for miles. Sunlight poured into the café, so that cigarette smoke lifted into the air, making shafts of columns hazy blue and gold.Jack felt someone tugging on his sleeve.“Hey there, Jack. How’s your mother?”Jack turned around. It was Mr. Clayton, a man in his early seventies, with a gaunt face.“Morning, Cleetus,” Jack said. "Good to see you, again."“He don’t know, he just got in last night,” Monte interrupted, turning to Mr. Clayton. “He’s got to go back into town.”“Well, she sure is sick I hear,” said Mr. Clayton, letting out a cough of his own that rattled from somewhere deep inside his sunken chest. Mr. Clayton hadn't shaved that morning and his white whiskers showed through his hollow cheekbones.Franny came back to the counter, leaned over to Jack, “I heard she told those city people off.”Jack shrugged. “I don’t know, I wasn’t there,” said Jack. “But I’m going to see her today.”“They’re coming in and we can’t do a thing about it,” Mr. Clayton said, lowering his head to sip his coffee.“We’ll see about that," Monte answered.Jack sat up on the stool and scratched his head. “Now, how can they flood a mountain? I seem to remember that water seeks its own level, and it sure won’t flow up.”“God, you’re dumb,” K-Todd said, shaking his head. “They can’t flood the mountain. They’re going to dam up the river and flood the valley, you moron.” He raised his arm, sweeping it across the breadth of the window. “See all that? Don’t get used to it.” Todd continued. “All that’s soon going to be underwater. Which means we’ll be cut-off and there won’t be a road out of here. That’s why they’re moving us out. Then the big land developers will come in and build big houses for big city fat cats, like having one house ain’t enough fer 'em. They gotta have a lake house, too. They'll all be tooling around in their fancy assed motorboats. Them and their snot-nosed kids.”A few murmurs rose from the ring of the counter. Even the two cooks turned around and nodded in agreement. Someone shouted out, “Hey, my steak’s growing a beard, bring it on over here.” The cooks instantly resumed their duties, muttering to themselves.“Hey, I only got two hands and they are both being used right now so just hold on to your horses,” roared Franny walking past the cooks with a tray of hot steaming dishes. As she came out from behind the counter, she shook her head. “Yep, for certain folks it’s the good times.”“They think we’re a bunch of yahoos,” K-Todd said, bending his face down to light another cigarette. “We’re the crazies, the ones who need to be pushed out. Who cares what happens to us?”“Shut up,” Monte said. “My family’s been here three generations. We licked those yellow-legged, blue-bellies when they tried to come down here before and we’ll stop ‘em agin if they try.”Sipping his coffee, Jack started to speak softly. “You know, this here’s a crazy place, man. It really is. We don’t know who we are or, what we’re going to be.”“What the f-?” asked K-Todd, a scowl growing upon his face.“I said this place doesn’t know what it wants to be. We got folks in St. Louis that think they’re part of New York. You got people in Kansas City that think that because of Jesse James and the Pony Express and all that makes them the Big Wide West. We don’t know if we’re country mice or city mice. Are we not men, or what?”The men around the counter were silent. Franny arrived to deliver the breakfast, placing the plates in front of them. Monte and Jack began to eat. “You got whites, you got krauts, you got a bunch of Poles coming in," K-Todd began. "The colored folk are all working in the factories now and the Mexicans are wading over here to get a job at the stockyards, you got all sorts of people, everybody except for Indians but you can find them down in Oklahoma. The war’s been long since over, but looks like we're getting the shaft here.”“Todd, you don't know shit,” said Monte, bending down to cut up his ham steak. “Shut up and eat. Hey Franny, next time, make sure to bring me some meat with those eggs.”Chapter Six“How old is this stakebody, anyway?” Jack yelled over the wind as the Ford pickup roared up the mountain. They had just finished breakfast and left the Red Ball Cafe. The washed out sides of the road dropped off with no shoulder to a sheer plunge of more than sixty feet. Waves of steep, tree-covered hills rolled off into the distance as far as the eye could see.“What?” Monte yelled back, gunning the Ford. “I said how old is this rattle-trap?”Monte turned to Jack and the pickup fishtailed, sending gravel over the side of the road and off into the valley below.“Yow! Hey, stick to the wheel, will ya?” Todd shouted, turning to glare at Monte.“Ha! Ha! This old Betty is a 29er,” Monte grinned. “I goosed her up, though. Watch this!”The truck at first spun out and then sped up the mountain road. In some places, trees grew nearly sideways on the hills. In other places they arched up in a broad canopy that blocked out the sun for a few moments. Then the road would emerge back into the sunlight again and the mountains in the distance glinted with a touch of blue smoke and sparkles of the sun reflected off farm ponds scattered across the valley floor below. They occasionally passed dogwood trees, dressed in full white blossoms. They drove on.Jack smiled, one arm hanging out the door, banging now and then on the door.“Sweet Jesus, man! I feel like Alf Bolin on the run!” Jack shouted.Monte grinned back. Todd bent down, cupped his hands to light a cigarette. Successful, he took a deep drag and blew smoke out through his nose. The truck hit a bump and all three bounced up and down. Todd dropped his cigarette on the floor board.“Goddamit, K-Todd!” Monte shouted, applying the brakes and stopping the truck. A cloud of gravel dust rose up from behind and enveloped the truck. Todd bent down, scrambled for the cigarette, found it and picked it up for all to see. He took a drag and cracked half a smile. The other two laughed. Monte stepped on the gas and peeled out.They drove on for several miles. Finally they neared the top of the mountain and stopped in front of a wooden A-frame house with a missing front door. An old washtub rested against an oak stump.
Several chickens clucking and pecking in the yard stopped and swiveled their heads and looked at the truck.“Well, K-Todd, here you be,” Monte said.Jack reached around the outside of the window and opened up the door. He got out. Todd squeezed pass.Monte hunched over the wheel and looked out towards the house. “Say, when you going to fix that door?”“Ha, you mean get a door?” Todd answered. He stopped and looked up at Jack.“Hey, Jack. When you gone stop being such a smart ass and wise up?”“What?” “I said, when you going to quit trying to act like you is better than us. So what, you been around the world. Big shit. Don’t make you special, you know, and you sure do say a lot of dumb things.”“Whoa there, K-Todd.” Jack’s smiled disappeared. "What in the fuck are you talking about."“Back there at the Red Ball," Todd went on. "You act all huffy and shit. Look at you. You ain't got no job. You just bum around from place to place. You ain't been around here in a long time and you're a know-it-all. But you don't know Jack shit, kid.”“Shut up, K-Todd,” Monte growled from inside the truck.Todd turned and walked to the house, muttering to himself.“Sheet, get in Jack, let’s go,” Monte said. He yelled out to K-Todd. "Make sure you go over to my place and milk 'em at now and agin at four!"Jack watched Todd walk into the house and disappear. He got back in the truck and slammed the door shut. Monte drove into the yard and turned around. For a long time, neither man spoke. The truck went down the mountain. Soon they passed the Red Ball, and they kept on going. Jack’s face was taut. "What'd I say to piss him off like that?"“Don’t pay that sack of shit any attention. He’s had a mad-on since Carrie ran off last summer with the post man.”Jack looked over at Monte.“Yeah,” said Monte, “She had enough of that old sourpuss. That is one sorry ass fellow. I bet I'm the only friend he's got left. Someone's gotta be.”“What about you, MJ? What do you think?” Jack asked, as the truck slowed and entered the covered bridge where Jack had found shelter the night before. The truck rattled over the wooden floor of the bridge. Beneath it, the creek was even higher than now and tree limbs drifted by on top of the roiling water.Jack looked back at the bridge shrinking in the distance, thinking about Charley.“Did I say something wrong back there?” he suddenly asked.“Nope.” Monte replied, staring straight ahead. "It's a free country as far as I know. You can say whatever you want."“Well, I didn’t mean to be come across as a know-it-all. I just think someone's gotta do something about this land development thing.”“Too late, son. Me, I'm lucky. Living on the Jamestown side means I don't have to move like yer ma. And it ain’t land devel-op-ment, son. It’s all about water."“Well, Monte, thanks for taking me to St. Michaels today,” said Jack. “Drop me off to see my mother and then we’ll go down to the Bucket Shop for a couple of cold ones later on, what do you say? I’m buying. Okay?”Monte smacked the seat. “Sounds good to me, little one. Sounds good to me. I got some business in town anyway. Let's meet up around six.”The truck roared down the mountain. The morning sun rose and the wind picked up. Trees swayed in the April breeze, and at last they came to the outskirts of the town.---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Inside the hospital room, the lights were off and the curtains closed. Jack had been there all day and now it was dusk.He bent down to his mother’s cheek, kissed it, slowly raising back his face from hers.She didn't look good.In the twilight of the room, Jack drew back, and looked around. There was no sound, except his mother’s deep set breathing. She lay with her head resting upon the green institution pillow.Jack bent down, lifted her fingers and kissed them gently.“There, there,” he whispered to her silent frame. "I'm here to take care of you, mother."He sat back down on the lone chair against the wall.The nurse came in.“Visiting hours are just about over now," she said.White capped, and white wrapped she seemed unreal to Jack. Jack, eyes welling up, waved her away. "Give me a couple more minutes."The nurse left.After five minutes had passed, Jack finally rose, and left the room. Looking down the hallway, he saw Monte, sitting up asleep on the couch in the middle of the waiting room.Jack lifted his toe and nudged Monte's foot.Softly, he said, “Hey there, MJ, it’s time to get up.”A nurse, a nun actually, silently went by. Jack watched her glide away. When she turned a corner and disappeared, he gave Monte's outstretched leg another nudge with his toe.Monte lifted one heavy lidded eye and a smile crept up the sides of his whiskered face. He shook his head and his hat fell off. The he bent over and slapped his thigh as picked up his hat and mashed it against his head.“Jack, a hospital is no place for a healthy man - they might mistake you for someone else, and before you know it, you only got one kidney and you're missing a lung,” he laughed. “You say that with my mother back there lying in one of those rooms, Jack replied dryly. “Come on. It's beer-thirty and I'm thirsty. Let’s blow.” He lowered his arm and Monte grasped it. The big man up from the green, hardback couch.“Yes sir, I say we head down to the Turf Club to raise our spirits with spirits," Monte said.‘Sure, sure,” Jack said, putting his arm around Monte’s shoulders. “And a bucket of beer, too.”“Yep,” nodded Monte, “We shall cuss and discuss. And when we'd have our fill of that, we'll move next to the Bucket Shop for a big-ass plate of dead cow.”"Yeah, but just make mine a beefburger. Man, I haven't had one of those in years.""Let's walk downtown," said Monte. "My legs need a stretch. They fell asleep from sleeping too long. We'll come back for the truck later."The two of them arm in arm started down the hallway that led out of the hospital. It had rained earlier in the afternoon but it had been just a brief shower and was over now. As they exited the building, the puddles in the street reflected the last tatters of storm clouds lazily drifting off into the east. Night dropped like a dark blue bubble.Neither spoke as they descended the hill, moving first past the wooden dog-eared fence alongside the city library and then past the four-story concrete edifice of the post office. They turned a corner and were met by the flashing marquee lights of the Trail Theater. A line of people waited in front of the ticket booth for the early evening show to open up. Jack nearly bumped into a couple, standing and smoking near the curb.“Excuse me, partner,” said Monte, brushing past, grabbing Jack by the shoulders and moving Jack forward through the crowd. The man swayed to one side, letting the big man go by. As Monte and Jack walked past, he casually tipped the ashes of his cigarette, lazily eyeing Jack's work boots and his torn shirt before returning his gaze to his companion."Yes, as I was saying, you sure can tell the cut of a man by the cut of his cloth," said the man, who stood out from the crowd with his red auburn hair that seemed so shiny it reflected back the neon lights. "And by his shoes."“Say, I know that guy,” Jack said, turning and looking back.“Yeah, you sure do and let’s keep on walking. Don't pay him no mind. He's the biggest asshole in town.”“Who is he?”“Aw, come on Jack. Leave it alone. You remember Old Man Cobb, that's his kid Carry. His dad is the real estate developer for the lake they're putting in.""Oh, is that right?" Jack replied. By now they were rounding the corner and walking past the TG&Y dime store with its big plate windows stuffed with toy trains and dolls positioned right up in the front case. The lights were off, but Jack cupped his hands around his eyes and peered in. Off in a corner, he could see the Formica counter, empty round stools and the vacant grill of the cafeteria at the back of the store. He dropped his hands and resumed walking to catch up with Monte.After walking several blocks further, they crossed the street and stopped in front of a wooden building perilously leaning to one side. A neon sign blinked above the doorway. Two round windows revealed a long wooden bar and the huddled figures of several men at one end. Monte and Jack walked inside. The lights were dim. A jukebox was playing a swing tune. The two of them walked halfway down the checkered tiled floor and settled into a booth opposite the bar. Jack fished out a pack of cigarettes and offered them to Monte. "Smoke?"Monte silently accepted the pack, withdrew a cigarette and tossed the pack back to Jack. Jack also took one out. Monte pulled out a Zippo and flipped back the lid, extending the lighter and flame to Jack. Jack lit up and drew back to his seat, letting the cigarette smoke slide out and pour from his nostrils.Monte lit his cigarette and he swiveled his head towards the bar. "I suppose one of us has to get up to fetch some drinks, seeing how the staff has obviously run away to the movies tonight," Monte said, slightly scowling."Aw right, your highness. What are you having?""Well, my royal son, I will take a boilermaker, make it a double shot of whiskey and a chaser of beer."Jack extended his right hand and curled it outward in front of Monte. "Of course, your excellence, let me grace you with the royal double shot."He turned around and sauntered to the end of the bar, where two men sat huddled in an intimate conversation with the bartender.Jack withdrew a quarter and leaned on the bar. He started tapping the bar with the coin, striking it repeatedly.At the other end of the bar, the barman slowly lifted his head and suspiciously eyed Jack. “Take it easy buddy. I’ll be with you in a second, see.” The barman resumed his conversation briefly, then wiped his hands on his smock and reached out a beefy hand to shake the hand of one of the bar patrons. The third man, nearest to Jack, turned up his face to look at him.Jack shrugged his shoulders. The barman finally backed away and slowly walked down the length of the bar and approached Jack.“Okay, pal, what are you having?”“Two Bushmills, and make them both double shots.”“Chaser?”“A bucket of beer.”The barman plucked two glasses up and turned to the bar. He reached down to a stand of liquor bottles and poured the whiskey and plunked the glasses down in front of Jack. Then he took out a wooden pail from beneath the bar and turned around to fill it from a spout on the wall. Glasses in hand, Jack walked back to the booth and deposited the whiskey drinks. Then as he went back to the bar, the barman shoved the beer-laden pail towards Jack and brought out two pilsner glasses, placing them upside down on the bar. Jack reached into his pocket and placed a dollar bill on the bar top. The barman rang it up and laid down Jack’s change. While all this was taking place, Jack felt the stares of the two other men at the end of the bar. Both were wearing hats pulled down over their eyes. Jack turned away and carried the pail of beer, clinking the glasses in his other hand. Then he sat down and raised his shot to Monte’s and they both began to drink.Chapter Seven“Pecatus, that's what they oughta call it, Pecatus," Jack said, wiping the beer foam from his lips with the back of his right hand. "Lake Pecatus."Monte leaned back against the booth. "Pecatus? Why not Bean Lake? Huh, mebbe Sugar Lake? Or Lake Contrary?""No, Pecatus. Lake Sin," Jack answered. "The benefits of a Jesuit education.""Impeccable, agreed," Monte answered. "Any man can be a plumber so long as he remembers the universal fact that shit flows downhill. Let he without it be the first to cast it.""Yeah, throw them stones like words that wound," Jack said, gazing around the room. The bar was completely empty now, except for the lone barman down at the end of the counter."Words are funny things," Jack went on quietly. "Like how one man can take a nation of normally highly intelligent people and turn them into supermonsters, doing shit nobody would ever dream of. All down in flames because of words. Sixty million fucking people all over the world paid for that colossal mistake.""Yeah, but we sure kicked their schwastickered asses, and but good. Good thing for the bomb, too," Monte replied.“I dunno, MJ," Jack said. "We ended one and started another." "So what if babies died. They'd just grow up to be tigers anyway," Monte retorted. "I say we kill the tiger cub before it becomes the tiger.”“Yeah, why not?" Jack sniffed. "We dropped two of ‘em already, why stop there?”“Korea, baby," said Monte Joe, rubbing his hands. "I say we drop the big one on all them screaming yellow hordes.”“Sure, Monte. And while we’re at it, we can lob a few over Moscow way.”“See, now you’re talking, son. Chinese is too hard for me to learn anyway, and those crazy Russians left out a few vowels,” Monte said with a wink. "No more reds."“You know, I seen up close what those things can do. I was in Miyazaki for a while afterwards. I went up there and saw it for myself.”“Let's cut the crap. Drink up, kid, drink up!” Monte drained his glass in one movement and poured himself another beer.“Yeah, let’s drink to the grave heap we call humanity…aw shit, this is rotgut stuff,” Jack said, his voice choked up.“Yeah, here’s to the human race, that rolling ocean of mercy and kindness.”“Yeah, here's to that accident of geography called birth," Jack said, shaking his head. "Do you really mean any of that?"“Damned straight if I don't. Now, let's have another drink.”“Yes, let’s have another.” Jack raised his glass.“Let’s hoist one to the sister wind and to the radiation clouds coming our way.” Monte threw back a shot of whiskey and followed that by again swiftly emptying his glass of beer.“Yeah, here’s to sticking that corn cob pipe up McArthur’s ass, too," said Jack, and he, too, downed another shot. "Ack. That is some sorry ass whiskey.”"Yes, that’s better, now, isn’t it?"Aw, man, I’m so tight right now. I could use one of them pickled eggs, how ‘bout you, Monte?”“Sure, six. I'll be taking six.”Jack went to the bar and used an oversized spoon to lift out eight hard-boiled eggs, one at a time, into an empty bowl sitting next to the jar of pickled eggs. He returned to the booth."Hah, you eat too much of that shit and you’re gonna look like an egg,” Jack said.“Shut up little one, and give me some of those, will ya? And pass the salt, Walt.”“Hold on there, Monte. It’s gonna be one big mess. Shit heel, pass me that beer.”“You have such a wonderful vocabulary, Jack. What a waste of a Jesuit education.”"Monte, you know I adore you.”“You need a gal, Jack. You need to get laid. You need to bust up all that sick cockamamie shit twisted up inside of you.”“Fuck you.”“Now, Jack, you mind your manners, and I will buy you a great big Bucket Shop steak to fill that skinny belly of yours.”“Oh boy, see now, how nice you can be. I told you I wanted a beefburger.”Monte laughed out loud. “Fearless now, aren’t we? Wanne see the hanging tree?”"The hanging tree?" Jack repeated.“Yeah, the one out back.” Monte tilted his head towards the rear of the tavern.“Out back?” Jack followed with his eyes.“Yep," Monte began. "See, they hung this colored fella three years back. That ole hangin tree still swaying. Right out back. Rope’s still there.”“What’d he do?”“Wrong place, wrong time. This buffalo soldier came into town and blew this dame a kiss and she blew back. She was white. They got caught shacking up. They strung him up right out back."Jack tapped several fingers upon the table. "He was a war hero, too. Came up from somewhere in Arkansas. Somebody busted into their room and they threw him into the hoosegow. A mob rose up and burned down the jail and hung his black ass. The only reason the feds came down was because a white lawman burned to death in the jail from the fire. They didn’t give a crap’s ass about him, poor bastard. He had one arm. Lost the other at Pearl. So they couldn't tie his arms together and he just thrashed around for a long, long and I mean, long time. Somebody finally pushed him with a stick until he broke his neck."The next day, most of the colored folk got up and moved away up north to Kansas City. About 2,000 of them. And that chickadee is still running around town, too, and nothing, I mean nothing, ever happened to her. Not a god dammed thing. War hero and all, shit. Give me one of those eggs.”“Don’t give me that shit. What kind of town, what kind of people..."“...people who are simply locked in the prison of experience,” came a voice from the bar, finishing Jack's sentence. Jack and Monte slowly looked up and for the first time they noticed the man who had sat down at the bar, not far from their booth. He wore black-rimmed glasses, and a woolen shirt stuffed with a pocket holder of pens and pencils. His khakis, and work boots were soiled with mud.Monte’s eyes narrowed. “Tell me about it, mister.”The man slowly swiveled half way on the stool to face Monte and Jack.“Say, you two fellas are from around here, right?”“Well, I am," Monte replied. He pointed a thick finger towards Jack. "This fool is just a bum who wandered in off the street.”“I'm certain you noticed how soggy the ground is?”“As a dairyman, yes," Monte said. "Yes, indeed. We’ve had a lot of rain lately.”Jack searched the man's face. He looked familiar.“Remember the floods here last year and as well the year before that?” the man asked.“Sure,” said Monte, leaning back, taking a bite out of a salted egg. “But we didn’t get much but here although there was a lot of flooded fields downstream, as I recall.”“Get ready for more. I just came from up north. The snow pack all the way from Montana to South Dakota is on its way here. And with the way it’s been raining ‘bout every day, there won’t be anywhere for the water to go.”“Who are you mister?” Monte said, leaning back.“Name's Floyd, David Floyd.”Jack suddenly remembered where he'd seen the man. It was the same man on the boat the day before, who had yelled at him to get off the river. The man didn't appear to recognize him.“So, Floyd,” said Monte, “what brings you to this lovely burg?”Jack remained silent, staring into his beer.“I’m with the U.S. Geological Survey. We’re surveying the river channel.”Monte sipped his beer. “Engineer, huh?”“Well, so now, what’s this about the prison of experience?” Jack interrupted, as he poured himself another beer, placing his finger against the top of the pilsner glass to stop the foam from rising over the top, then raising the beer to his lips.“See, last year, and even the year before that, this town experienced above average rainfall. There was some minimal flooding, as the levees mostly held.""Yep, I seem to remember the seed and feed guys near the French bottoms just moved their merchandise out of their basements and stuffed their doors with rags and flour sacks to keep the water out," Monte added."That's not going to work this time," the man said grimly. "Never mind that this whole town sits on a mammoth flood plain.”“Well, no shit, everybody knows that, mister," Monte guffawed. "We had the last big one back in 1881.”“Yeah, Monte, your people were here then, too, weren’t they?” Jack said turning to Monte.“Yes, they were," Monte answered. "So mister, you’re saying instead of experience being a teacher, it’s a prison.”“That’s right. That’s right. Man’s increase in numbers and the spread of his works are in direct opposition to the forces of nature. And here’s the paradox: the more you increase flood control, the more you increase the potential for damage.”“Like a big gamble to see who wins first,” Jack cut in. “You’re saying we could be in for worse. An even bigger one that ever before? And meanwhile they’re carving out a lake just over the hills.”A new voice broke in. It came from the bartender who now had suddenly appeared at the table. “You boys don’t need to be spreading no rumors, now. You finished, or want that I get you another bucket of beer?”Monte slowly raised himself up. “Yeah, we’ll take another bucket. Don’t get me started. I could break every glass in this place and still walk out with a big bottle of 12-year-old whiskey. We're not bothering nobody, just a couple of guys sitting here talking, that’s all.”The bartender looked down at Jack and Monte, picked up the empty bucket and returned to the end of the bar and began filling it up with beer. The bartender soon returned and brought the bucket loudly down on the booth table.“I reckon if there’s a flood,” the bartender began, “that there'd be one big-ass real easy way to fix it. All you have to do is have a bunch of army planes bomb the river at Rulo up north with tons of dry ice. That’ll freeze the river solid. You then send a lot of army trucks to Rulo and have the soldiers cut the frozen river into big blocks of ice and load them on the trucks. Then you take the ice to just north of the French bottoms and dump it in the river there. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about any trouble around here at all.”The bartender let out a tremendous laugh, slapped his thigh convulsing in laughter at his own joke and returned to the bar.The engineer locked his jaws, clenching his teeth.“Aw, don’t mind that fool,” Monte said. Jack turned to the man. “So if this is such a big gamble to put a town square right here in the middle of a flood plain, why do it in the first place? I mean, why would people do it?”"Hah," Monte laughed. "Because the fur trappers could dance with the squaws when they wanted to shack up."The engineer ignored Monte and slowly turned to Jack, and he threw out one finger at a time: “One, people don’t know about the hazard or don’t care. Two, they know but personally don’t expect a future flood. Three, they expect it, but don’t expect to bear a loss. Four, they expect to bear a loss but not a serious one and are not unduly concerned. And five, they expect a serious loss, and are taking action.”“You can bet the last group can be counted on one had just like those points you just made, mister,” Monte said, pouring another beer into his glass.“Correct. You can bear the loss, or fight the flood. Of course, you can try to control the flood, but like I say, the more you try to protect from a flood, the more you encourage folks to invade the flood plain because they have a false sense of security.”“Sort of like the bomb, right Floyd?” Jack said, taking a swig of beer. The engineer drained his glass and stood up. “To believe that man is an omniscient and rational creature – that’s preposterous. The future is not a mirror of the past," said the engineer, loud enough for the bartender to hear. "Good evening gentlemen, time for me to pull up.”“See you around,” Jack said looking at Monte's reaction. Monte tipped his hat and nodded his head.After the engineer left, they both remained silent for several minutes. Jack nursed his beer, deep in his thoughts.Monte finally raised his arms and yawned deeply. “Shit, Jack, I’m starving. Let’s go down to the Bucket Shop and I’ll buy you that great big steak I promised.”“OK, but I want a beefburger.” The two of them stood up, and walked out of the tavern, watched closely by the steady gaze of the barman as he slowly washed out a shot glass with a dirty rag.Chapter EightJack and Monte stood beneath a large neon sign, its winking yellow lights cascading into the form of a giant bucket of beer suspended barely over their heads. Jack grinned at Monte as they watched the lights flash above them.Jack read aloud the sign on the door. “Fine Foods and Mixed Drinks - Home of the Original Beef Burger!” "Come on, boy, I'm insane with hunger," Monte laughed.They walked inside. The place was crowded so Jack and Monte took the only seats left, which were at the bar. As Monte lit up a cigarette, Jack peered out through the plate glass windows facing Lake Avenue. Across the street, he saw an empty lot that eventually gave way to a freight yard - a maze of more than a dozen railroad tracks and switches and utility sheds, still gleaming blue and black from the recent rain. Beyond the tracks and spreading out across the French Bottoms, Jack could see the long, low-slung shacks of the stockyards, rows of chutes and uncovered cattle pens. He could barely make out shadowed figures of livestock moving back and forth, brushing up against the open-planked wooden fences. Jack smiled. Even inside, he could barely detect a faint odor of fresh dung blown back by the Westerly winds wafting over the French bottoms. "Mmmmmm, dinnertime," he said softly.Standing solemn above the open cattle pens, a pair of giant concrete grain elevators towered in the darkness, each capped with a twinkling red light warning planes to steer clear.Glimmering in the distance, just past the grain towers, Jack could see the river as it made an ox-bow heading south. A small airport hugged the riverbanks inside the ox-bow, with rows of lights along the runway. Giant bluffs loomed behind the airport and the river. The grasslands atop the bluffs eventually leveled off and flattened, becoming Kansas. Jack imagined the vast, flat fields of endless wheat and waving green stalks of corn rustling in the night wind and stretching out to meet the Rockie Mountains soaring hundreds of miles away into the Western darkness. Inside the Bucket Shop, water beaded up like balled sweat at the top of the big exterior plate glass windows. They reflected back the yellow and red neon lights from the sign outside. Two Tiffany lamps stood at opposite ends of the long, mahogany bar. The polished bar ran from the entrance to the end of the first building whose walls had been knocked out and which gave way to an open space full of wagon-wheel tables crammed with diners. High above the bar and its rows of amber, claret, and orange liquor bottles, rose the longhorns of a Texas steer bolted to the brick wall. Other trophy heads also lined the upper reaches of the same wall. Jack's gaze drifted over to a small, black puma perched on a wooden platform and then to a bobcat with only one eye, and one, two, three deer heads – all ten-point bucks. Near the end of the bar, close to the windows, stood a giant, stuffed grizzly bear nailed to the floor and whose lower jaw had a hole worn through it from being rubbed for good luck by too many bar patrons. Jack swiveled on his bar stool and turned to look at the opposite wall and counted the various stuffed fish and fowl staring back at him with dead-ink eyes - several quail, a mallard, three pheasants, and a curving marlin, painted an unreal azure blue. Someone had also attached deer antlers to the head of a grinning jackrabbit, and had stuck an unlit cigarette in its mouth. Eight dining booths lined the wall. A pair of phone booths, separated the bar from the main dining room. Jack looked across the room. Through the open kitchen door, a cook cursed aloud as the sound of several pans clattered loudly. The diners noisily chattered as a loud backroom fan suddenly came to life and rattled the exposed air ducts.Monte clapped Jack on his shoulders.“Home, at last,” he said smiling. "Your wish is my command. Din din is on me.The bartender slowly approached and began roughly drying his hands with his aprons. “Hey, now, look what the cat drug in!” the barman said with a grin.“Michael O’Brien, you dog for dinner,” Monte laughed back and stretched out his hand. The two shook hands across the bar. “Who’s your friend here?” the barman asked. He drew closer and his eyes widened. "Flying pigs, is that you Jack?"“Nope, it's just some dumb kid I found washed up along the river. He was about to jump off the Pony Express Bridge for the third time or else swim to Kansas, but I told him I’d buy him his last meal just for shits and grins.” "Heya, Mike," Jack said slyly. “Ho ho! We just came down from the Turf Club. Hoo, what a dive that’s become.”The bartender’s face gathered into a frown. “Now why would you on God’s green earth want to associate yourself there? That place is for rummies and loan sharks.”“Aw, Mike. Leave us alone, now," Monte said with a wink. "Come on, show us a seat and bring us two of those big-ass porterhouse steaks, you know, the kind that pour over both sides of the plate. My friend here needs nourishment."Jack leaned back. "No, no, make mine a beefburger. I haven't had one of those in ten years. Had a Maid-rite in Des Moines once. Wasn't the same a'tall."“Ruby!” Mike the barman yelled over the hum of the giant fan. A tall middle-aged woman, with sharp cheekbones and her red hair piled up high on her head, came sweeping down the aisle between the bar and the booths.“What is it, hon? What have we got here?” she asked Mike.“These two gents are dining in tonight, got anyplace they can sit?” Mike asked her.Ruby looked back towards the dining room just in time to spot an elderly couple rise and leave the booth closest to the back room.“I got booth eight. Stand here boys, give me a second and I’ll get it cleaned right away.” With that, Ruby skirted away and began waving her hands to a busboy in the dining area that was carrying a gray, metal tub full of soiled dishes.Mike turned to Monte and Jack. “You boys up for another?”Jack shook his head violently but Monte raised his thumb. “Just get me a beer Mike, and some salt,” said Monte.The elderly couple that had exited the booth now approached the front of the bar. The man stopped, pulled out several bills and gingerly placed them on the bar. He slowly reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a coin purse, carefully extracting two dimes and a nickel, which he also placed on the bar. Then he made an about face, slowly grasped his wife’s arm, and the two of them left the restaurant without speaking a word. Jack watched fascinated as they left the restaurant. Monte and Mike were conversing in hushed tones as they waited for Ruby and her crew to clear the booth.Then, in the corner of his eye, Jack saw her. It was the singing girl, whom he had met the day before. She was wearing a white apron and was walking across the back dining room. She quickly moved around the wagon wheel tables and then disappeared into the kitchen. Jack suddenly felt clear-headed.“I’ll be right back,” he said to Monte without turning his head. Jack got out of his seat and walked towards the kitchen to find the golden haired girl.He made his way through the crowded tables and headed to the rear of the restaurant.Just as he approached the swinging doors of the kitchen, she came out and nearly bumped into him. Startled, she drew back."Hello," Jack said. "Remember me?"The young woman looked up at Jack and slowly a smile spread across her face. Jack dumbly smiled back."Yes, yes I do," she said, folding her arms. "You are Mister Man with the Charley sniffing dog."Jack laughed. "That's right, good ole Charley. 'Cept he ran off this morning and he's back home rooting in the woods somewhere. Damn dog. Actually his name is Charley.""Charley ran away?" she asked. "Oh, I'll find him. No big deal. He'll come back when he's hungry. So, you work here, do you.""No, this is just my, what do you say...hobby?"They both laughed. "I'm Jack," he said, putting out his hand. "You're Marisha, the singing nun.""I am busy Mr. Jack, feeding these masses," she replied. "I must go.""Wait, wait a second," Jack cut in as she started to turn away. "You got a boyfriend or anything like that?""What's it to you, Mr. Charley man?""Charley, his name is Charley. I’m Jack" he said slowly. "I'm here with a friend. We're fixing to eat. But what time do you get off? I know a really crazy juke joint down the road where we can dance our pants off."Marisha's eyes narrowed. "I am a good girl and I do not dance my pants off.""No, no no no, that's not what I meant," he swiftly answered. "I mean, I'd like to take you out dancing, that is if you got off early enough. How about it?""Hmmmph, I am not that, what you say is an easy to go kind of girl." She started to turn away.Suddenly a male voice in the kitchen yelled out. "Masha, Masha, get in here now."Marisha half-closed her eyes. "I will think about your offer to dance but no pants come off. Besides, I do not wear pants, as you can see.""Oh, I can see all right," Jack said apologetically. Marisha turned away and just as she entered the kitchen, she turned back at Jack and twisted her head with a sudden snap, sending her blonde mane across one eye.Jack mouthed out the word "Please?"Marisha mouthed back "Maybe.Then she turned and disappeared into the kitchen.Chapter NineThey ate mostly without speaking as the noise of the other diners around them was deafening. Monty joyfully dug into his porterhouse steak, furiously cutting large chunks and moaning in delight as he chewed the tender meat. Jack picked up his hotdog bun, which was slathered with crumbled hamburger and onions in chili sauce. In between bites, he turned and looked back to the kitchen, hoping to catch sight of Marisha. Monty cut his filet and picked up the bone with two hands, tipped his head to Jack and began gnawing at it. “Closest to the bone, sweeter the meat,” he winked. Jack nodded in agreement, finishing up the last of his beefburger. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and turned around in the booth. Marisha was standing next to the kitchen door. He could barely see her with so many people coming and going. She was shaking her head no and pointing at her watch.Jack mouthed “please” but Marisha shook her head. She raised one finger. Jack got the signal. He turned back around to face Monty.“Damn, she can’t go,” he said dejected.“Well, sonny boy, does seem might strange you being so hang dog about this gal. What with your ma being so deathly ill and all.”“Shut up, it was your idea to go drinking,” Jack replied. “Besides, my mother and I made peace a long, long time ago. We have an understanding so don’t go getting all sentimental on my ass.”“Aw, don’t be such a sour puss. Maybe you need another drink. Sounds like you’re sobering up.”“Nah, sorry. I’m okay.” Jack said, planting his elbows on the table rubbing his eyes. “What time is it?”Monte looked towards the bar at a giant neon sign with a river of beer seeming to cascade into a bucket. “Clock on the wall says nine o’clock. Why?”“I dunno. I think she gets off at one. I wonder how she’s getting home.”“Probably Big Mike. Looks like he’s kind of like her big brother to me,” Monte said. “He gets that way about strays, you know. Now, we could just go to the show, or maybe over to Players and catch a Burlesque and then come back.”“Maybe not,” Jack said sleepily. “I’d like to take her out for a big time. I’m too sloshed anyway and look at the clothes I’m wearing. Maybe we just call it a night and head back to Mountain Home.”“Sure, whatever you say, chief,” Monte answered, finishing the last of his steak. “I’ll be right back.” Jack got up and headed to the rear of the restaurant. He approached the swinging doors and leaned over the left one. “Pssst.”Marisha was talking to the cook. She noticed Jack, flashing him a smile. She finished the conversation and came out of the kitchen. They spoke in low tones.“Hey,” Jack began, “Maybe tonight’s not good. How about later this week? I’m in town for a while. My mother’s in the hospital so I gotta come back and check up on her.”“Your mother, tsk, tsk,” Marisha said. “Is she okay?”Jack’s face screwed up. “Nah, not really. It’s pretty bad.”Marisha looked up into his face, smiling gently. “I would like to go the movies with you. I am off Monday night.”“Sure, sure, okay.”“Marisha!” a voice boomed from inside the kitchen. It was the cook.“I have to go now. Say hello to Mr. Charley dog for me.” She patted Jack’s face and then turned and went back inside the kitchen.”His name is Charley.” Jack took a deep breath and slowly made his way to the front of the restaurant. The Bucket Shop was still crowded as more people continued to enter, a large group standing next to the bar, waiting for tables to open up.Watertown Chapter Ten
Jack stepped out of the Bucket Shop into the cool spring night. He stuffed his hands in his front pockets. Monte stayed behind, still deep in a conversation with Mike the barman. Jack had told him he wanted to take a walk around town and would be back around midnight.The revelers were everywhere. Noisy carloads of teen-agers drove up and down King Hill Avenue, their arms akimbo out the windows as they waved and heckled each other. As Jack walked up the street, he noticed two cars stopped side by side at an intersection, passing a bottle back and forth. Cars behind them cheerfully honked. Jack kept walking up the hill. Soon he found himself on the Sixth St. Viaduct. He had a commanding view of the rail yard below and the low-slung shacks of the meat packing sheds that stretched all the way to the river. The night was clear and a sliver moon shimmied in the reflecting waters. Looking north, Jack could see the town spread out before him, its many lights twinkling and beckoning him forward.Just as he was about to step off the curb and cross the street, a black sedan roared past. A passenger tossed something out the window. It landed on the grass strip next to the sidewalk. The tinny drone of a low siren penetrated the night. He could hear its warning note sounding louder as it drew closer. Jack stepped back and watched as the cop car rushed into view and then disappeared into the darkness as it chased the black sedan. He bent down to inspect the object that had been thrown out of the window. It was a boot. There was something inside it. Jack backed up. He skirted around it and went ahead and crossed the street.Several blocks later, he crested the hill and Jack found himself downtown. He walked past a string of bars lined one side of the street. Several had their doors opened, Jack peered in as he went by. He spied clusters of old men, huddled together over dim bars. A couple of faces glared at him as he went by. The paved streets soon turned into cobblestone as Jack reached the oldest part of the city. He was in the middle of a group of industrial shops and warehouses. The Ice House commanded an entire block. Suddenly, a high, clear note lifted out of nowhere and pierced the air. Jack walked towards where it came from. He could hear more notes. It was bop music, and it was coming from the river. Jack walked faster.Soon the warehouses gave way to open fields and down by the banks of the river stood a crooked shack dangerously leaning as if about to collapse at any moment. As people tumbled out, so did the sound of raucous music and yell out loud laughter and hands clapping and stomping feet. Several times the door would shut but Jack could still hear the muffled sound of a saxophone and the pounding of drums. As he approached, he noticed a big black man standing by the doorway. The man stared down at Jack and for a moment there was tense silence. The door suddenly burst open and a couple wrapped in each other’s stupor bumbled their way out the door. The man stopped and swung around. He drew near and tried to pat the big man’s face.“John Henry Abe-rah-ham Lincoln!” he shrieked. “’I’ll be damned. Where can I get me's a name like that? That is one bad-ass name, yessiree. Woooeeee! Sheet. O Big John. You beat the machine and freed your self, too! Ain’t that a topper!”John Henry stood straight and tall, glowering at the little man, who was now standing on his tiptoes and attempting to kiss John Henry on the cheek. The woman stepped in and grabbed her partner. “Whoa ho ho, there Jerry, now let’s not start any shit.”“Ah, suh-weety, who’s startin’ any sheet?” The man asked, standing off balance and about to fall over. “I’se jus' trying to show this man my love. I ain’t starting nuttin’!”“Jerry, you drunk ass,” the woman said. “You gonna get us killed, now come on and let’s go. I want a hamburger from Harry’s.”“Harry? Who in the hell's Harry? Tell that goddam hamburger Henry I want me a big ole' malted milk. My stomach hurts,” The man replied.The woman grabbed the man and the two tripped down the wooden stairs and staggered off. Jack turned and watched them go. Then he looked up at the big man.John Henry glared off in the distance, watching the couple take off. Then he noticed Jack. He took a long look at him. Slowly, like sunlight pouring over the hills at dawn, he smiled. Then he started laughing.“Goddammed drunks,” he said, shaking his head. “Now what about you, white boy. You got the sickness, dontcha.”Puzzlement washed over Jack’s face. He looked up at Alfonso.“Sure as shit, you do. Oh boy, do you got it bad, too. Come on inside. You hear that? Yep, that’s him banging on the registers in there. That’s him all right. Yes sir, the one and only Eddie Eugene.”Jack nodded. He could feel the beat rumbling across the floor and onto the stairway where he stood.“You here at the crossroads, ain’t ya?” Alfonso continued, drawing his face closer to Jack’s. “You here to see a man ‘bout a harp. Well now. Eddie’s sittin’ in for Howlin’ Wolf tonight who couldn’t make it because, well, ‘cause he’s long gone dead.”John Henry opened the door, the sound of a delirious crowd and loud music blasted into Jack’s face. With a grand sweep of his mighty arm, John Henry ushered Jack inside. Jack smiled and entered the shack.Inside, it was so crowded that Jack noticed several men had to lift both arms up to take a drink of their beers. It was amazingly hot. Everywhere he saw sweaty faces. A pall of blue grey smoke hung over the crowd. Nearly every spot was taken. The crowd had formed a horseshoe around the stage, which was little more than a wooden platform raised two inches off the floor.The crowd was mostly black, but they didn’t seem to care about him. Jack squeezed his way to the side of the room towards the bar. After a lengthy struggle, he finally made it. The barman saw him coming and handed him a beer over the bar. Jack forked out some change from his pocket and smiled at the barman, who simply nodded and turned away.A combo group stopped playing and slowly got up and left, one by one, silently leaving their instruments on the stage. The crowd grew silent. Only the drummer remained. He was a small man, but dressed in a fine three-piece suit and shiny black shoes. He stiffly stood up from the drumset and walked over to the center of the stage. He withdrew a harmonica from his pocket, wiped it with a hankerchief, and closing his eyes, began to play the saddest, sweetest blues Jack had ever heard.
Chapter Twenty FiveEvery afternoon big, white clouds rolled in from the West and gathered high above the plains, massive in their expanding. Horse head shapes formed and rolled up together, rising into an immense anvil that flattened at the top, soaring brilliantly against a cobalt sky. Flashes of orange heat lighting bathed the roiling, bulging underbelly of the anvil, turning the huge cloud, by now dominating the horizon, into one big dynamo, radiating charges that lit up and down the entire cloud across the width of the Western sky. As the storm drew near, the winds picked up, slow at first and then soon it ruffled through the trees and the grass. In front of the approaching storm cloud, a drapery of black unfurled as the first few drops of rain suddenly appeared, the drops separated by several feet and leaving pockmarks in the mud. A few more minutes passed by and the rain turned into mist. By now, the cloud loomed overhead, and the entire sky turned gray and even black in some places. Then the storm hit. A ferocious wet lashing rained down with lightning and great peals of thunder. These storms would last no more than an hour. Then the angry clouds would scuttle away east across the edges of the next county, and sweep beyond that and roll on into Tennessee and dissipate somewhere over Appalachia. When the sun poked out, steam would rise from puddles left on the ground. The coolness would lift and it would be sticky hot all over again.It rained liked that for nearly three weeks.From May into June, the runoff had nowhere to go. Streams rose to the tops of banks. The groundwater was so high that it squished under foot. The soil could not absorb any more and the big river outside of St. Michaels hurtled past the town, millions of gallons rushing by, the melted snow pack from late snow deep in Montana and Canada snaking down the continent and adding to the churning, malignant flow. Large, uprooted trees limned the Pony Express Bridge, snagged by the pylons. Now and then part of a washed out cabin, or a piece of corrugated tin roofing would come swirling down, battering the bridge, and adding to the pile-up.On Friday, June 13, the great storm came. The rain began in the afternoon but this time it did not stop. It rained throughout the night and into the next morning. Following a brief respite, the wind and rain picked up again in the evening of June 14. The rain abated in the morning and returned during the afternoon and all through the evening. By midnight June 16, more than 16 inches of rain had fallen in many places.Stream flow gauging stations recorded more water in June than any time in the history of the weather stations which had first began recording in 1901. The men operating the weather stations were in awe. The sheriff and the police chief working with the city’s firemen began organizing sandbagging teams. At first, the line of bags rose at the cobbled streets of the oldest part of the city, near the train station. The wooden wharf near there had already washed away.During the second night of the great storm, the river crested and crept up and over the first line of sandbags. The power lines went down and there was no light. That same night, the river flooded into the city water works, spoiling the tanks and contaminating the city’s water supply. The sandbaggers returned to their labor. Men, grim in their work, were soon joined by their women to place a second line of sandbags behind the First Street stockyards. A third line was set up in front of the downtown courthouse square.On the third night of the storm, an overturned grain boat came hurtling downstream and plowed into the Pony Express Bridge, sending forth a pounding that rocked the ground for miles, and the splintered remains of the bridge was swept away. The city was now isolated from all outside communication.The wholesale and railroad districts in the West bottoms were covered with twelve feet of water. Slack lime stored in box cars caught fire and it quickly spread to the roofs of buildings not yet underwater. The firemen were helpless and could only watch from King Hill, the city’s highest point, and hope that the water would work itself to put out the blazes along the flooded railway tracks.
The sheriff and his men took to johnboats and patrolled the flooded bottoms, calling out in bullhorns that looters, thieves and firebugs would be shot on sight. In the parts untouched by the waters, St. Michaels was without gas, electricity, water and street car service. In the lowlands in the south end of St. Michaels the levees gave way and homes disappeared beneath the water. Wild rumors of lost friends and relatives spread throughout the city. An explosion roared up when a fire started in an oil storage tank swept across five blocks of businesses. In the churning of the river, cars, trees and assorted belongings, clothing, sheets, furniture bobbed up and was swept away. Upended railroad cars floated past mounds of debris hugging the remaining parts of the levee. In the stockyards, cattle and hogs swam aimless in the swollen waters, clawing for a footing they could not find.The soap plant, the cold storage yards, the flour and soybean mills silently disappeared beneath the roaring waters. Soon the meat packing plants and the stock exchange went under. The entire downtown area was completely covered up.Families took what they could for their belongings and piled in trucks and cars, abandoning their homes for higher ground. It was in the Red Cross shelter on the outskirts of town where Jack finally found Marisha.