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All the time you’ve been away from a town where you lived when you were a kid, you think about it and talk about it as if the air there were sweeter in the nostrils than other air. When you meet a man from that town you feel a kind of brotherhood with him, till the talk runs down and you can’t remember any more names.
The city started sooner than I expected it to. In ten years it had crawled out along the highway, covering new farms with the concrete squares of suburban developments. On both sides of the highway I could see the rows of little frame houses, all alike, as if there were only one architect in the city and he had a magnificent obsession.
“It won’t be long now,” the transport driver said. He yawned over the wheel, keeping his eyes on the road. “I don’t need any dago red to put me to sleep tonight.”
“You live here?”
“I got a room in a boardinghouse at this end. You could call it living, I guess.”
“Don’t you like the town?”
“It’s all right if you don’t know any better places.” He spat through his open window into the current of air that the truck’s movement made, and a fine spray blew across the back of my neck. “I call Chicago home. That’s where my wife is.”
“That makes the difference.”
“No,” I said. “I’m traveling on my own.”
“Looking for a job, eh?”
“You shouldn’t have any trouble here. Matter of fact, we need helpers down at the depot right now. Half the time I have to load my own truck. You strong enough?”
“Yeah, I’m strong enough. But that’s not the kind of a job I was thinking about.”
“Pretty good pay. Seventy cents an hour. You can’t do better than that around here.”
“Maybe I can. I’ve got connections.”
“You have?” He gave me a quick look. I wasn’t looking so good. I hadn’t shaved or washed that day, and my clothes had been slept in.
He must have decided I was lying. He said with broad irony: “Oh well, in that case,” and stopped talking to me.
The highway had changed into the east end of the main street, half residential and half business. Neighborhood grocery stores, coal yards, gas stations, cheap taverns, big old rundown houses, a few churches with blank embarrassed faces. I couldn’t remember the buildings ahead of time, but nearly everything was familiar once I saw it. I caught a whiff of the rubber factories on the south side, corrupting the spring night like an armpit odor. I watched the suppertime crowds on the street, looking for someone I might remember.
The driver applied the brakes, and the truck came to a stop at the curb.
“I’ll let you out here, bud. I can’t take you down to the depot.” He nodded toward the “No Riders” sticker on the windshield. “But in case your connections don’t pan out, you want to come down there. It’s on Masters Street.”
“Thanks. And thanks for the ride.”
I hoisted my canvas suitcase from under my feet and climbed down out of the cabin. The big truck moved away and left me standing on the curb.
I walked a couple of blocks in the direction the truck had taken, but I was in no hurry to go anywhere. The excitement I had felt on coming back to the city had worn off already. Men and women passed me going both ways, but they were nobody I knew. A policeman gave me a sharp glance. I realized that I must look like a bum, and the realization made me feel like one. I began to wonder for the first time that day if my connections in the town were worth anything. Perhaps they didn’t even exist any more.
I passed a new apartment building whose windows were like holes in a box of light. Through one of them I caught a glimpse of a man and woman dancing to the radio, holding each other close. It was enough to bring back the feeling of loneliness that I had been having off and on for years. I wanted to know every room in every apartment in that building I had never seen before, and call everyone who lived there by his first name. At the same time I wished I had the power to destroy the building and everybody in it.
I hadn’t had a fight for a long time, and I was spoiling for one.
Across the street a neon sign said: “Schlitz Beer on Draught,” and I crossed to it. The plate-glass window of the tavern was half-curtained, but I could see over the curtain. It was a big square room full of wooden chairs and tables, with a bar at the back. In the cold yellow light of the fly-specked ceiling lamps, I could see that the tables were scarred by carved initials and the charred grooves left by untended cigarettes. The place was almost empty, and the few people that were there didn’t look as if they’d make me feel out of place.
I went inside and sat on a stool at the bar. The bartender paid no attention to me. He was busy being a character for the benefit of a couple of other customers, a peroxide blonde and a henna redhead at the other end of the bar. The girls were sitting one on each side of a big young man in a topcoat made of imitation llama.
“So you want another drink,” the bartender said with a wide cruel smile. “You think I got nothing better to do than give you another drink. Don’t you know by this time of night all I can think about is my feet? My feet are killing me.”
“Is that a promise?” the peroxide blonde said in a shrill, peroxide-blonde voice. The women giggled, and the man between them hugged them, one under each arm.
“The way you talk,” the bartender said, “the way you talk, you’d think I get paid money to stand here and feed you characters whisky—when all the time my feet are killing me.”
He was gray-headed and massive. His belly hung out over his belt and swayed like a huge bosom when he moved.
“You should try reducing, Henry,” the blonde said. “Take some of that weight off your feet.”
“Okay, okay,” the bartender said. “You asked for it and you’ll get it. But I warn you this bar whisky is the lousiest stuff this side of the sewer farm.” He poured three shots out of an unlabeled bottle and set them on the bar.
“You should know, Henry,” the blonde said.
“It’s mother’s milk to me,” Henry said.
I rapped on the bar with a quarter.
“Somebody’s getting impatient,” Henry said. “When somebody gets impatient that makes me nervous. When I get nervous I’m no damn good for anything at all.”
“A bottle of beer,” I said.
“Look at my hand,” Henry said. “It’s trembling like a leaf.” He held out a big gray hand and smiled down at it. “Beer, you say?”
“If this place is still in business.”
He took a bottle out of the cooler, uncapped it, and shuffled along the bar towards me.
He looked at me with potential dislike. “What’s the matter, you got no sense of humor?”
“Sure, but I checked it in another town. Go right on being sidesplitting for your friends.”
“You’re a stranger in town, aren’t you? Maybe you just don’t know how we talk around here.”
“I’m learning fast.”
“You can’t learn too fast.”
“Do you serve glasses with your beer? I’ll have one.”
“Olive or maraschino?”
“Just dip your thumb in it when you pour it.”
“Pour it yourself.”
I picked up my bottle and glass and sat down at a table against the wall. An old man with a glass of beer in front of him was facing me at the next table. There was a shag of beard on his face, shading from pure white on his cheeks and upper lip to iron gray on his flabby neck. When I had poured my beer and raised my glass to my lips, he raised his glass and winked at me.
I smiled back before I drank, and regretted it a minute later when he got up and moved towards my table. A shapeless brown overcoat hung about his body, and he walked like a sack of rags. He slumped into the other chair, rested his moth-eaten arms on the table, and leaned towards me with a sweet, dirty smile, which showed no teeth. He smelled of beer and age.
“It didn’t used to be like this,” he said. “But after all, life begins at sixty-five.”
“Are you sixty-five?”
“Sixty-six. Yeah, I know I look older, but those strokes I had take it out of a man. The first one gave me a hell of a jolt, but it didn’t hurt me any except that it slowed me down. But the second one was a dandy. I still can’t use my left hand, probably never will be able to again.”
“You’ve got funny reasons for saying that life begins at sixty-five.”
“Sweet Cæsar, those aren’t my reasons! It’s for different reasons entirely that my life began at sixty-five. That was when I qualified.”
“Qualified for what? Voting?”
“Qualified for the old-age pension, son. Ever since then I’ve been my own boss. No more getting pushed around, no more licking asses, not for me! Nobody can take that pension away from me.”
“It’s a great thing,” I said.
“It’s a wonderful thing. It’s the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me in my life.”
He finished his beer and I ordered him another.
“Who was your boss before you got the pension?”
“Can you imagine what they did to me?” the old man said. “And that was when I couldn’t walk yet after my second stroke. They put me out in the county poorhouse, with nobody to look after me except my chums out there. They said all the hospitals were full. I still have some of the bedsores I got then. And then they weren’t going to give me my old-age pension, even after I qualified.”
“What was the matter?”
“You see, son, I couldn’t prove my age. You’d think if they took one look at me they could see how old I am, but that wasn’t good enough. I was born on a farm and my daddy never registered my birth, so I couldn’t get a birth certificate. I would’ve been up the creek without a paddle, if it hadn’t been for Mr. Allister. He got my case investigated and people to swear to me, and everything turned out jake. Now I got me a little place of my own under the stairs at the warehouse, and nobody can say boo to me.”
Two men came in and sat down at a table near us. One was short and broad. He wore a limp cloth cap and a decayed leather windbreaker. The other was tall and very thin, his face a vague triangle with the apex pointed down. He took a mouth organ out of the pocket of his shiny blue suit coat and blew a few dreamy notes. His companion drummed on the table with cracked dirty knuckles and looked stonily ahead.
“Who is this Allister?” I asked the old man.
“You don’t know who Mr. Allister is? You haven’t been around here long, have you? Mr. Allister is the Mayor of this town.”
“And he helped you with your pension? He must be a pretty good egg.”
“Mr. Allister is the finest man in this town.”
“Things have changed around here,” I said. “It used to be that J.D. Weather was the man to go to when you needed help like that. He used to have a line-up at his office every morning.”
“J.D. Weather got killed before I had my second stroke. Let me see, that was two years ago this coming June. You used to live in this town, eh?”
“J.D. Weather got killed?”
“Yeah, about two years ago. Excuse me.”
“Wait a minute. How did he get killed?” I put my hand on his arm, which felt like a bone wrapped in rags.
“He just plain got killed,” the old man said impatiently. “Somebody shot him and he died.”
“For Christ’s sake! Who shot him?”
“You got to let me go, son. I been drinking beer.”
I let go of his arm and he shuffled away to the men’s room. The blonde and the redhead and their joint property in imitation llama had drifted away to other bars. The short man and the tall man finished their draught beers and wandered into the men’s room. Now the room was deserted except for the bartender, who was wiping glasses and paying no attention to me. The ugly, empty room was one of a long series of lonely bars in towns I didn’t know. If J.D. Weather was dead, this town was going to be as lonely as the rest.
There was a low growl of men’s voices from the lavatory. I couldn’t make out any words but there was unpleasantness in the sound, which was emphasized a minute later by a muffled thud. I glanced at the bartender, but he was busy with his glasses.
Then somebody sobbed in the men’s room. I got up and walked through the door. The old man was sitting on the dirty tile floor with his back to the wall. A bead of blood had fallen from one of his nostrils onto his white mustache. The tall mouth organist and his companion stood in the center of the small room, watching me. The old man’s hat was on the floor near their feet.
The old man was crying. “They took my money,” he sobbed. “Make them give me back my money.”
“We ain’t got his money,” the short man said. “He called me a dirty name, so I gave him a slap.”
“The lousy, bullying bastards!” the old man said. “They took my sixteen dollars.”
“You shut up,” said the tall man, taking a step towards him.
“Leave him alone,” I said. “And give him back his money.”
The tall man stayed where he was.
“Oh, yeah?” the short man said. His eyes were bright blue, as hard and glistening as glass eyes. “You and who else is going to make me?”
“I’m getting tired waiting,” I said. “Give him back his money.”
“He didn’t have no money,” the short man said. “C’mon, Swainie, let’s get the hell out of here.”
I braced my heel on the doorjamb and swung as I moved into him. He ducked his jaw quickly, but my fist caught the bridge of his nose. He moved in on me and clinched me around the waist with his round head under my right arm.