The Boy Orator: A Novelby Tracy Daugherty
In Tracy Daugherty's third novel, childhood innocence and political ambition meet just prior to the First World War in the person of Harry Shaughnessy, an Oklahoma farmer' son. Gifted with a booming speaking voice and a charismatic presence, the boy learns the socialist credo from his father, who takes him on the roadfrom laborers' camps to county fairs to
In Tracy Daugherty's third novel, childhood innocence and political ambition meet just prior to the First World War in the person of Harry Shaughnessy, an Oklahoma farmer' son. Gifted with a booming speaking voice and a charismatic presence, the boy learns the socialist credo from his father, who takes him on the roadfrom laborers' camps to county fairs to Oklahoma Cityto spread the people's gospel to farmers, miners, and oil workers. Along the way young Harry encounters other socialist crusadersEugene V. Debs, Oscar Ameringer, and the dynamic red-haired feminist Kate O'Hare.
Daugherty seamlessly integrates these historical figures into the compelling fictionalized tale of his own real-life grandfather's idealistic struggle for American workers and of his inevitable disillusionment with the defeat of the socialist cause. With an apt and unobtrusive use of the details of another era, Daugherty creates historical images as vivid as contemporary television images of Oklahoma City rescue workers cradling wounded children outside the bomb-devastated Murrah building.
In later years, Harry Shaughnessy would have been called a Red-diaper baby. Although his pious mother Annie Mae was too Catholic to have much in the way of political convictions, his father Andrew became a Socialist and a labor organizer at an early age and raised his boy to believe more devoutly in the coming Triumph of the Working Man than most children believe in Santa Claus. So effective was Andrew's influence on young Harry, in fact, that before he was even ten the boy became an accomplished orator, addressing socialist conventions and meeting-halls from one end of Oklahoma to other. A child at the podium was a good draw, as Andrew Shaughnessy knew-the novelty would supply the audience, and a boy could get away with saying more than the police and the mine owners would allow from a grown man. For decades, Oklahoma had been run by the mines more or less as one big company town, and now that statehood had been achieved, the authorities were tightening the screws even further. Like his heroes Eugene Debs and Big Bill Haywood, young Harry set out to let the man in the street know when he was getting the short end of the stick. But, like Debs, he underestimated the power of patriotism, eventually finding himself facing prison for refusing to serve in WWI. A good-hearted local politician tries to give Harry some advice: "The State's changing, kid. Modernizing Socialism has reached the end of its trail." But Harry's a true believer and, like all saints, destined for martyrdom. By the time it comes, it's not muchof a surprise.
Hokey and pious, written with all the depth of a catechism and all the color of a tract. .
- Southern Methodist University Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
Later this evening, Harry knew, he'd celebrate his twelfth birthday with his father, just the two of them, in the restaurant of the Palmer Hotel, where all the waiters wore bow ties and jackets, and all the windows, spread before the wide, dusty streets, showed knots of huddled strangers who'd come to trade their goodsComanches hawking jewelry and skins, cotton farmers stacking hoes on wooden walks in front of the millinery shop and the pharmacy. Harry's father would tell him to order anything he wanted from the menu: steak and Irish potatoes, chicken and dumplings, hot apple pie. He'd claim, as he always did on these trips, he was proud of his son, and maybe as a treat back in the room he'd offer Harry a sip of warm choc beer. The bottle, Andrew's "after-dinner blessing," was stuffed in the leather grip they shared that didn't shut all the way. But before any meals Harry had to give his speech.
Anadarko, Oklahoma, a townsite of two thousand folks or so, was hot and humid this early May afternoon. The tradesmen rubbed their eyes with dirty plaid bandannas. It wasn't likely they'd stop to hear a serious talk, Andrew had warned Harry. They'd want to get their business done and go home.
Besides the market, Harry had to compete with the comet. Any hour now Earth would pass through its tail. The experts Andrew had seen quoted in the papers didn't know if this would harm the atmosphere. Two years ago they'd detected toxic gas in Comet Morehouse; this new visitor, speeding much closer to the planet, might trigger influenza outbreaks. On the other hand,comet tails were exceedingly thin: a change in the wind, nothing more.
A young man in a green tweed suit set a cardboard box in the street next to a sweaty team of horses near the makeshift platform Harry and Andrew planned to use. He wiped his face with a long yellow kerchief. His companion, a small Indian woman in a white dress, helped him open the box. From its depths he pulled a rubber mask. "Don't let the first decade of the twentieth century be your last!" he shouted above the din of sales, the tool prices, the buggy rattles, and whip-cracks. "Protect yourself from Heaven's hellish messenger! I hold in my hand here a one-hundred-percent authentic breathing maskguaranteed to help you survive Halley's Comet! Six bits for the breath of life, step on up, that's it sir, step right ahead!"
Andrew grumbled then said to Harry, "Come on now, before he draws all the crowd." He lifted his lanky boy onto the platform, a series of chicken crates stacked and wired together, fashioned this morning by an industrious cattle auctioneer. On a street-pole behind the crates, Harry's thin face, sketched in pencil, beamed from a poster:
17 May 1910
Come Hear Harry Shaughnessy
THE BOY ORATOR
Main Street, Anadarko (Weather Permitting)
Endorsed by the Farm Labor Progressive League
GOOD LOUD SPEAKER
He wasn't the only "baby" orator in the state; Andrew had stolen that idea. The Baptists every politician hoped to reacha powerful bloc of votersliterally believed the Bible's promise that "a little child shall lead them." At rallies, brush arbor revivals, even in the halls of the state capitol, parents and party bosses taught any kid with volume a patriotic nugget or two, urged him onto stages, and hailed him as a prophet of Oklahoma's coming economic miracle.
Harry, thoughHarry was the genuine article. Andrew had recognized his talent instantly when, in a school Christmas pageant, at the age of six, he'd overcome his stage fright long enough to blurt, "Welcome ladies and gentlemen, and bless us all on this holy night of our Lord." The cadence and timbre of his voice were steady as oak, strong enough to fill the auditorium. Afterwards the other fathers told Andrew, "Sounds like you've got a young firebrand there" or "Dress him up, take him on the road."
Andrew saved for months, scoring a timely timber sale to the mines, to buy his boy a nice cotton suit, dark blue. He bought pomade for Harry's curly red hair, taught him to stand up straight and slap color into his flat, freckled cheeks right before each speech. At seven, with his daddy's eager help, Harry began learning the Socialist gospel. Late most afternoons, they'd practice together in the windy barn behind their house near East Cache Creek. The Cache, just north of the Red River in Cotton County, was a muddy burble, and a former Kiowa homestead (before white settlers drove the Indians out "long ahead of us," Andrew's neighbors had told him when he'd moved there years ago).
Harry was tall and awkward for his age; his arms poked like kindling from the sleeves of his wrinkled suit. Andrew would stand him on a hay bale, prompt him from the shadows, while barn cats scurried through the horse stalls, and a horned owl aired its wings, creaky and expansive, in the broad walnut rafters. "American farmers are stragglers of rooted armies," Harry would begin.
"Routed armies," Andrew corrected, "scattered by the money men."
"routed armies, always hoping that somewhere in this great land of ours, there's a piece of dirt for them."
The way his voice thickened in recitation, the way his face flushed dark crimson the first few times they worked on a speech, reminded Andrew of his own father, gentle Michael Roy, resting now seven years in the ground, the hard Texas ground he'd plowed until the strain of loving it, and paying all its costs, burst his heart.
"And who do the money men serve?" Andrew would shout at his boy, eyes salty with tears, thinking, Father, listen, your dream hasn't died.
"The forces of greed!" Harry yelled back.
For you, Father. Listen. "Greed?"
"The smasher." Sunlight burst through slats in the barn. Harry's face flushed with excitement and a swelling desire to please: Father, watch me, listen, for you. "The smasher of souls!"
Harry planted his feet, shaking with energy, love (Andrew saw it in the lurching tilt of the boy's whole body), fear of letting his father down. He closed his eyes. "Souls!"
This afternoon in Anadarko, Andrew felt anxious for the first time in weeks. The crowd was tired, overheated, dose to fury over bad deals, inflated prices. These were just the poor wretches Harry could aid if they were willing to listen but Andrew feared they weren't. Farmers weren't the only ones tending to business. Men in tiesbankers, lawyers, owners of the farmers' rocky landsstrolled among saddles, plows, and furs, counting the county's wealth, their kingdom's gold. Klansmen, Andrew thought, spitting into the dirt. Most of these bastards were night-riders. They wouldn't welcome Harry's message.
Three or four fellows approached the platform. They didn't look friendly. Andrew preferred camp meetings in the country, addressing honest, hardworking folks with their simple hand-stitched clothes and coal-oil lamps, to these market-day affairs. In the country, people hungered for the word; they'd come to a rally dragging water in big tin buckets, hauling firewood and bedding. Fiddlers played reels and boisterous jigs, runes the farmers' ancestors danced to in Ireland or Scotland, generations ago. For the oratory, the stirring advice, crowds straggled in for miles, slatternly, weary, but full of vinegar. Here, in county seats like Anadarko, where most people ate three full squares a day, sympathy for the poor was hard to scare up. Andrew had said as much to the Socialist League, who sponsored Harry's trips, but the party was after converts, it didn't matter where. Andrew didn't trust anyone in the electric light towns.
"The standard beginning," he whispered to his son. Harry cleared his throat, straightened his black string tie. "Live to see the coming century!" called the breathing mask man. "Don't let this evil apparition rob you of your dearest years!" Down the street a strained buyer argued the cost of a scythe: "You thieving son of a bitch, I'm not blind. Who do you think you're talking to?" Harry said softly, "The rent you pay your landlordwhat is it now, twenty-five dollars a bale?would buy a lot of biscuits for your wife."
One of the men who'd faced the platform stepped forward, removed his hat, and said, "What's that, son?" His teeth were brown and his skin, beneath his whiskers, was a dark, mottled red, relieved here and there by hooklike scars.
"I said"Harry raised his voice, gestured crisply at the crowd "your landlord's wife wears silks and gets to ride in an automobile, while your wife walks!" His words rained like straw on the bent shoulders of all the men, or so Andrew imagined, startling them lightly at first, then itching, working down beneath their shirts and into their skin. They turned, two at a time, three at a time, to see the source of this storm, and were shocked to find a skinny kid.
"While your sons and daughters labor in the fields, the children of the men who own you bask in the finest educational facilities this country has to offer," Harry went on. "You've paid for these schools but can your family get near them?"
Farmers flocked together as Harry spoke; the men in suits had vanished. The fellows Andrew had noticed beforethe unfriendly onesstood by the platform and glowered.
The mask salesman had lost his audience. He shook his rubber headgear. "You won't even have any fields, don't you understand me? All will be destroyed. This wayward star is a divine plague from the Lord. Rescue yourselves!"
For a couple more minutes Harry, the salesman, the tradesmen competed
"Two dollars a yard"
"angered the Lord Almighty"
"no farther than this town's steel vaults to discover the cause of your woes"
"Two dollars my ass!"
but Harry soon held sway. He paced the platform, shaking his fists. Sweat spread along his sleeves, his dark red hair sprang forth. With every other breath he swallowed a darting mosquito, but he'd learned to do this without choking or even pausing in his speech. "Gangs of parasites infest the towns of this county, and they fatten their hides at your expense, my friends, your expense! You do the work of the world yet nothing but crumbs come your way!"
Andrew stood behind his boy watching the streets. He'd taught Harry well, those days in the barn, whispering, "Louder. Okay, softer now, make them strain to hear you." The listeners were rapt, but a bad pulse beat in this townAndrew could feel it. He noticed keen eyes studying him like a sum, the harsh scrutiny of older, meaner men: solid citizens with much to lose and no intention of doing so. At the camp meetings, Harry spoke mostly to friends, liquored up and happy. These were impatient strangers at the end of an aching day. The event was not well-timed (he'd told the league!). He waited. Then it came.
"Lousy Reds," said the man with the scars. He turned to size up the crowd. Waved his hat. "Rotten Reds!" he yelled. His voice seemed to die in the air. For a second, Harry lost the rhythm of his speech, became aware of his circumstances, conscious of his movements, and in that second he saw the mask salesman slap the Indian woman. She'd tried to lift the box, lost her grip and spilled the masks in the dust. The salesman whacked her head, stamped her feet with his boots. Harry looked away and saw in the sky a massive thunderhead, angry, cumulus plumes, yellow and green. A moment ago the land was still. Now, without warning, wind sucked dust from the road, shading the sky brick-red, ripping handbills and his very own posters from their nails, filling his nose with a dry rain-smell and stinging his skin ice-cold. The comet, he thought, it's here. He imagined bank roofs sailing off into fields, crushing empty wagons, dollars snowing into pockets, horses somersaulting over the town. He looked around. He wanted one of those masks. He wanted his birthday dinner; it might be his last.
The swift change in air pressure roused the mob even more. Men blinked grit from their eyes. Andrew felt the blood-rush rise. The scarred man hit the platform with his hat, raising a head-shaped ball of dust. "These Reds want women to vote!" he barked. "They want to give niggers your land!"
The crowd shook. Andrew, unthinking, shoved Harry aside. The boy nearly tripped off the platform. "You don't have any land, that's the point!" Andrew shouted. The wind seemed to flatten all sound, like a heavy iron lid clamped on the town. "You're the niggers here!" As soon as he said this he regretted it. Men swarmed the front of the platform. "It's the devil's work they do!" someone yelled. "Drag them down from there. This is a Christian town, with good Christian morals!"
Andrew grabbed Harry, smoothed the small, padded shoulders of his coat. "God," he whispereda signal for a different kind of speech. Harry lifted his right arm, magically stilling the crowd. "I pray for the Kingdom on Earth," he said, his voice trembling with conviction. As he spoke, he kept an eye on the salesman, who was dragging the woman and the box down the street, past the bakery, the Good Luck Café, the Palmer Hotel. Horses reared in the stiffening breeze. "While men are underpaid, women overworked, and children underfed, the Kingdom of Heaven will never appear in Oklahoma. Socialism can remove these unhealthy conditions. Socialism can relieve you of your animal existence. Brothers, I pray we see Socialism in our time!"
The clouds were frothing now. Harry's tie whipped his face. The listeners, stunned by this boy's endless breath, the great power rising from his belly like a pipe organ, shivered.
"Okay, that's it, let's get," said Andrew, tugging Harry from the platform, down a gas-lighted alley smelling of orange rinds and coffee, rose perfume, piss, and the sweet cedar wood of nearby buildings. The crowd still hadn't moved. Harry choked on dust, wondered if the comet had poisoned him already. "Anadarko," Andrew said, nearly breathless. "Fellow told me once it's Caddo for 'People of the Bee.'" He wheezed. "Good place to get stung, all right. When we get back to the hotel, I want you to put your suit in the bag right away"
"Aren't we staying for dinner?" Harry asked, torn between his terror of the sky and his hunger for ice cream and cobbler.
"No, I think we better get on back to your mother tonight."
"But you promised"
"Harry, hush up and do as I say now. We got a long ride ahead of us." Andrew was always amazed at how quickly Harry slipped from the wise little adult who'd paced the stage into a nagging kid again. An only child, he was used to attention; Andrew was usually glad to give itan extra helping of mashed potatoes and gravy at supper, one last game of checkers just before bedbut not when Harry acted stubborn like this against good advice. How many times had Andrew told his son, believing it, "You have to straighten up. The eyes of the world'll be on you."
"I don't care," Harry would reply, angling to stay up later than usual, or to wriggle out of his chores.
"Won't!" the boy used to shoutbut lately, Harry hadn't protested quite so much, even when he was grumpy and exhausted, Andrew had noticed, grateful for this new sign of maturity.
A fat raindrop hit the ground like a bullet. "Hurry up, son. Maybe we can beat the storm."
Back in their room Andrew pulled a wool sock from under the mattress, reached in and emptied the league's money. All there, still. Good. He'd settle up downstairs and they'd be on their way. Harry stuffed his coat and tie into the bag, around the smooth, hot bottle of beer.
By the time they left the lobby it was just after five. Lights were snuffing out in the stores, flaring up in noisy coffee shops and inns. The sky had a midnight pallor. "You don't suppose there's something to that comet nonsense, do you?" Andrew said.
Harry didn't hear. He was pouting. His father seemed to hate this town but he didn't see what was so bad about it. The crowd had turned a little sour but this wasn't the first time he'd faced a restless group. The women wore bright dresses and the food smelled good. Three years ago, when President Roosevelt signed Oklahoma into statehood, Andrew brought the family here for a fireworks celebration. Harry still remembered the egg-yolk bursts among the stars, the dying-flower smell of the gunpowder as it drifted past the cemetery they'd found with a marvelous view. He liked this place. He wanted sparklers for his birthday.
Andrew led him down back streets toward the smithy's barn where, this morning, they'd boarded their wagon and team. As they rounded a corner by a small barbershop they were blocked by five big men. "Oh shit," Andrew whispered. Their arm hair, Harry saw, was as thick and matted as the sleeves of wool sweaters. They all wore overalls and veils on their headsbandannas or soiled-looking pillowcases with needled edges. One man hid his features behind a dark green rubber mask. "Well well well," he said, his voice as muffled and watery as a frog's.
"Wait now, gents, we don't want any trouble," Andrew said, setting down the leather grip, raising his calloused hands.
"Then what'd you come here for, talking your devil talk, huh? Damn Reds." The man lifted the bottom of his mask to spit. Harry saw hooked scars beneath his stubble.
"Say, boy." A man in a pillowcase stung Harry's ear with a hard, muddy finger. His spooky eye-holes were the size of silver dollars. "You suck niggers' dicks? I'll bet you suck niggers' dicks, am I right?"
"Please. The boy doesn't know anything," Andrew said. His voice shook. " I write his speeches. Honest. He doesn't understand a word of them. Whatever you' re going to do, leave him out of it."
A second hooded man knelt to inspect Harry's face. He smelled of onions, sweat, wet animal hair. "Your pappy doesn't think you're too smart, now does he? Are you a Red, boy? Do you know what that means?"
"Yes, you know what it means? Or yes, you are one?"
Harry steeled himself. "I believe in the noble tenets of Socialism, sir."
Andrew shut his eyes.
"Tenets!" The man in the mask laughed with a low rumble like rolling marbles. "Well now, he sounds pretty smart to me." He turned to Andrew. "Shaughnessy. That a mick name?"
"Sounds mick to me, Billy," one of his buddies answered.
"Damn it, I've told you, don't identify me." He tightened his rubber disguise. "So, not only are you Reds, you're goddam Irish Catholics. You want to take our land and Romanize our schools, that it? Enslave our kids to the Pope?"
"No," Andrew said. "We want what you want. Honest, we're just like you."
"Listen, mick, we got a nice town here. Folks work hard, go to Protestant churches, earn what they have. We don't need country scum coming 'round telling us how to live. So you go on back to your nasty women and your niggers, you hear?"
"Lucky for him we're fresh out of hot tar, eh Billy?" The man cracked Andrew's nose with the flat of his palm. Andrew wobbled and fell to the ground. The group swarmed on him, kicking. Blood bloomed in a swell of dirt.
Harry hollered. He looked around for help, pounded one of the men. Someone grabbed him from behind and tossed him into a woodpile. A loose ax bit his side. Squatty logs, fat as little bulldogs, tumbled all around him. He tasted dirt and blood, the smoky tinge of oak.
The next thing he knew, rain was hammering his face and his feet were cold. He picked himself out of the rickety stack of wood, ripped his shirt on a splinter. The ax had left a big gash in his side just above his right hip. He'd landed at an angle so the wound wasn't worse. The rain pasted his hair to his face, washed blood down his thighs. Shivering, he stumbled toward his father who lay face up in a thin crater of mud. Andrew's eyes and lips were swollen, purple-green. He groaned when Harry touched his shoulder.
"I'll get a doctor," Harry croaked. In the rain, bubbles formed on his lips. He remembered a pharmacy on Main Street. No one was around.
Andrew raised a bloody arm. "No," he hissed. He tried to speak without moving his mouth. "Don't trust ... the bastards here. I'll be ... fine, with rest. Did they take our money?"
Harry turned and found the half-open bag. He looked inside. The clothes were soaked. "I think everything's here," he said.
"Good. Are you hurt?" Andrew tried to sit up, groaned again, sank deeper into shallow streams of muddy yellow rain.
"Thank God. If you can get me ... to the hotel, check us in, same room. Rest. Rest the night ..."
Twenty minutes later Harry had managed to pull his father to his feet. They traveled stiffly. In the lobby of the Palmer Hotel, Harry snapped at the startled clerk in his most effective tones, "No, we don't need a doctor. Just our room. Now!"
The clerk, a pasty man with a mole near the top of his head, persisted. "I think I should inform the manager there's a serious injury on the premises."
"Please," Andrew said. He dripped blood and water on the desk. "Listen to the boy. There's an extra buck in it for you. I'll be fine. You won't be liable for anything, I swear. Harry, give him the money."
Harry opened the bag and did as he was told. As he helped his father up the stairs he glanced into the restaurant. Waiters with trays shot from the kitchen in their crisp red jackets, trailing feathers of pleasant smoke. There'd be no "blessing" tonight; no birthday, even.
The bedsprings squealed when Andrew flopped onto the sheets. Harry lit a white candle on the night table. Gingerly, he washed his father's face with a cool, wet rag. His own cut he cleaned without soap. He wrapped one of Andrew's suspenders around his waist to stop the bleeding.
Andrew motioned Harry to his side. "In the morning ... you'll have to drive the wagon. Do you think you can do that?"
"Yessir." Harry smeared tears from his eyes. He'd never seen his father so helpless. The sight of Andrew battered changed the world. The ground, the air around him, no longer seemed a sure bet.
"Son, it's important ... you know why this happened."
"I know why it happened," Harry said. "Because we're right."
"Yes. Those men are scared." Andrew sighed so heavily it seemed his features would alter forever. "Make a good family, make a good life. There's no higher calling for a manmy own daddy used to tell me that. When you talk to people like you do, Harry, you're ... doing that. Trying to make life good. Some people don't understand. They want to" He rolled over in pain.
"It's all right, Dad," Harry said, gripping his father's hand. "I know. You don't have to say any more. Rest now."
Soon Andrew was snoring, threatening the candle flame with his breath. Wax peppered the floor. Harry's stomach growled. He unrolled the sock with the money inside. The hard, dark coins were warm as sunny pebbles in his palm. Maybe not steak, but a slice or two of bacon? Creamed corn, a mashed potato? No, his father would notice if even a little was gone. "That's not our jack!" he'd say. "It belongs to the league. You don't spend a dime without my permission, you hear me?"
Harry wondered what his father would say if he admitted to him, "Dad, I'm tired of making speeches." The trips weren't fun if he and Andrew couldn't eat a nice meal or do something special. Once, in Guthrie, they'd watched a traveling circus. A woman in a silver gown wrapped herself like a pretzel around a barrel of water; later, she stayed for Harry's talk. He liked his time onstage, the warm cedar smells of the platforms he paced, the crack of his shoe heels on the shiny new wood. He loved using his voice like a rope pulling people toward him, the red flags in the trees waving like pairs of pudgy hands applauding, but everything elsethe long wagon rides, the meetings with league officialswore him out.
It wasn't true his father wrote his speeches. Harry found his own right words. He'd read the great Oscar Ameringer, the father of their movement ("Socialism grows when every other crop fails"). Heard the chicken-eating preachers at brush arbor revivals. From them all he'd learned to plant ideas, like burrs, in people's minds. He knew what worked. If only he could talk from his porch, never leave. He craved his mother's biscuits, the warm flour smell of her apron as she rocked him in her arms.
He walked to the dresser mirror to adjust the strap around his wound. In the near-dark he almost tripped on the open leather bag. He heard the choc beer slosh. His belly murmured again. A sip or two would surely ease his pain ... he could throw the bottle away, say it rolled into the alley and smashed when the men attacked them. His dad would never know. He reached inside the grip.
Last summer Andrew had taken him to the Wichita foothills west of Lawton to watch a man he called an "old family friend" mix a batch of corn liquor. "Don't ever tell your mother," Andrew warned him as they groped through stickery woods. They saw a hand-painted sign in a clearing: "All Nations Welcome But 'Carrie.'" His father grinned. "It's not far now."
"Who's 'Carrie'?" Harry asked.
"Carry Nation. Saloon-buster." He stopped to shake the sweat off his face. "Like your ma, she doesn't approve of this sort of thing." They walked a little farther, past post oak and gnarly mistletoe groves, until they heard hushed and serious voices. "I'm a friend!" his father shouted and raised his arms. Harry did the same. Immediately, they were surrounded by shotgun-toting men in dirty blue overalls. A big bearded fellow spat tobacco onto a pine stump. "It's all right," he said. "It's Andrew and his boy." The men lowered their guns.
All day Harry watched them brew. His father's friend, Zeke Cash, said, "Now, the Anti-Saloon League and the Christian Temperance Union'll tell you this stuffs a sin but don't you believe it. The Bible says, 'Wine maketh glad the heart of man.' Psalms 104. Look it up." He poured sweet mash from a barrel into a still-pot, added oak chips for flavor. Meanwhile, his buddies, swatting off horseflies, dug sacks of unground corn out of cone-shaped manure piles, to see if they were ready to mush with sugar and water. One of the men, standing guard beneath the mistletoe, played lonesome love songs on a mouth harp.
"How much of this Ruckus Juice you want, Andrew?" Zeke said.
"Couple of bottles."
"Two bottles of Panther Sweat comin' up."
He ran off the first batch of bran, threw the slop on leafy ground by a pair of strutting chickens. The birds pecked at the bristling foam, dithered in half-circles, then fell down drunk. Zeke offered Harry a sip; he stalled. His father said, "I'll tell you a secret, son. When you were teething as a baby, screaming all night and keeping us awake, the only thing that'd soothe you was a bit of Zeke's Bust Head. Your ma didn't like it, but I told her to rub a spoonful on your gums each night and you settled right down, like a sweet, lazy lamb. That's the only time she ever let the stuff in the house."
"All right," Harry said, doubtful. He raised the wooden cup, rolled his head back slowly, gagged. A huge, raw hand had reached into his throat and stolen the breath from his lungs. He hacked and gasped while all the men laughed. Later, he tasted the murky choc from the bottom of the mash barrel, liked it better than the whiskey. Since then his father had always tossed a "blessing" in the bag when they went on trips. He didn't let Harry have much; a quick shot if his speech was particularly good.
Now, while his father slept in the dim room, Harry chugged the beer. "Happy birthday," he said to his face in the mirror. He heard piano music from lighted rooms across the street below. Restless, stirred by the choc, and a little dizzy already, he cracked the door, tiptoed down the hall and slipped downstairs to the lobby. The desk clerk stared at him. Harry balanced the bottle with both tingling hands behind his back. He still wore his torn, bloody shirt.
"Everything all right?" the clerk said. The black mole quivered on his forehead.
Harry nearly dropped the bottle. The clerk squinted, tried to peer around the boy to see what he was hiding. Harry realized he'd stuffed the money sock into his pants when he was thinking of ordering dinner. He walked to the desk, set the bottle by his feet so the clerk couldn't see it, pulled out the sock, and spilled a mound of coins. He'd think of something later to tell his father. "Here." He arranged the change in a circle. "Just go about your business, okay?"
The clerk grinned. "Big guy, eh? I know who you are. I've seen the posters." This sounded like an accusation. He swept the coins into his coat and turned away.
On the street Harry hid in the shadows of a newspaper office across the way from a raucous café. He leaned against a hitching post, nursing the choc. A few men passed, talking, smoking. They didn't see him there in the dark. He watched their swinging arms as they walked, ready to run if he spotted the thick hair he'd glimpsed on the gang who'd hurt him. He smelled pepper-beef from the place across the street, heard women's laughter, deep and lively as his mother's. He shivered.
The storm had left as quickly as it rose. The air was warmer than before but his shirt was damp. The street was rutted with puddles. Someone strummed a banjo in the kitchen. His stomach gurgled. He took a step into the street, dodged back when two men passed. What if his attackers were in the café? He couldn't risk it. And there was still a problem with the money. His father would see he was short already.
A ruddy dog with spots on its back yipped at his feet. "Get!" Harry hissed. A strolling couple looked over and saw him. "Get away from here. Leave me alone." The dog was playful, insistent on sniffing the choc, surprised at its own frequent farts.
Voices accompanied the banjo now. Harry went soft in the knees. "Well well," someone said. Harry jittered, startling the dog. It farted loudly, a sound like clattering brass, then scampered off down the street, dark then light, dark then light, as it passed through shadows then under sidewalk lamps.
"Take it easy, friend." A figure approached from the alley. "You're pretty skittish for a Communist. I thought all you fellows were fearless, out in front, fighting the people's war." The breathing mask man, weaving with drink, still in his green tweed suit, stained now under the sleeves. His yellow kerchief dangled from a hip pocket next to a curly rubber string.
Harry hadn't thought about the comet since the beating. He looked up now. Clouds flat as planks, stars like nails, nearly hidden, holding them all together.
"I'm not a Communist," he murmured. Beer ambushed his head, pinching, pinching.
"Could've fooled me." The man rolled a cigarette. A sliver of brown hair bobbed on his chin just below his lower lip, a woolly wood chip. "You know how many of these I sold today?" He pulled a mask from his pocket, spilling his kerchief onto the ground. "Five. Yesterday, in Shawnee? Fifty-five." He lit the fag, flicked the match into the street. A brief flare. A comet-tail. "You and your Communist talk, stirring folks up. You ruined it for me, kid." He staggered and belched.
Harry set his bottle down. He staggered too. "Maybe tomorrow"
"Hell, tomorrow'll be too late. Halley's will have come and gone. Have to find another scam. Where's your old man?"
The salesman laughed, nudged the empty bottle with his boot. "You and me, we got something in common. The thrill of the pitch. Afterwards you can't settle down, right? Others hit the sack, your blood's still racing." He fingered the loose threads of Harry's shirt. "What happened, you bust a longhorn? Boy, you do have energy."
Harry didn't answer.
"Well, I say us drummers, we gotta stick together."
"I'm not a drummer, either."
"Sure you are." The man swirled his cigarette like a stubby yellow sparkler over his head. "You're selling the biggest idea of all. Promise of a better life. And it's about as useful as the crap I push. You're pretty good, though, I gotta say. What was that line?'I pray we see the Kingdom on Earth.' Pretty good, kid, pretty good. How old are you?"
"Well now, happy birthday."
The man offered his hand. "Bob Cochran."
"Harry," Harry said.
"Harry, you stick with this business, you'll be a damn fine drummer someday. Got the spark, that's a fact. I only wish you'd take it somewhere else." He'd smoked his cigarette quickly. He ground it out in a knothole on the hitching post then rolled himself another.
Harry looked at the mask, stuck now back in Bob Cochran's pocket, glanced nervously at the sky. Behind him, in the doorway of the newspaper office, a cricket rattled. "Where's your friend?" Harry asked.
"That lady with you."
"Sue-Sue?" Bob Cochran smiled a mean-looking smile, the closest smile to a frown Harry had ever seen. "Waiting for me back in the room. That's how I get my energy out."
"You hit her," Harry said.
Bob Cochran frowned his smile. "She's Kiowa," he answered, as if that explained everything. He noticed Harry eyeing the mask. "You want that? Think it's going to save you? Take it." He dropped it in Harry's hands; the rubber was cool and crawly. "Nothing's going to save you, kid." He bent level with Harry's face. Whiskey leaped off his breath. "The coming century, it's going to be a marvel, you know that? Electric lights are just the beginning. People are going to eat, drinkbelieve ittravel with speed. There'll be shiny chrome machines doing all our work. Buildings tall as stars. And you won't see a whit of it. Know why?" He stroked his wood-chip beard.
Harry, weary, hungry, befuddled by his daddy's beer, said, "The comet?"
"Ha!" Bob Cochran sailed his second fag at the farty little dog, who'd returned and was crouching in the street as if waiting for him to leave. "'Cause you're stuck in Shithole, Oklahoma, that's why." He rose unsteadily, angled off down the walk. "Nice talking to you, Harry," he called from the dark.
Harry sank to the ground, picked up the choc bottle and smashed the rubber mask with it, scaring then drawing the curious dog. Here, sitting in the dirt of Anadarko, heating music fade in the place across the street and knowing he was too late to get any supper; here, on the night he was twelve, while his beaten father slept, he determined his story would begin. The speed Bob Cochran had mentioned, the chrome machines and the buildings, Harry Tracy Shaughnessy would bring them here, right here, to Oklahoma. Why not? Fired by the beer, and the thrill of the pitch, he decided the century would deny him nothing.
When he rose he noticed Bob Cochran's yellow kerchief, crumpled like a tiny paper parasol in a puddle. He picked it up, squeezed it almost dry, and wrapped it around his wrist.
The clerk was nodding off on a stool behind the hotel desk when Harry returned to the lobby. He crept back up the stairs, tripping twice, found his father still lost to the world. His face, in poor, reflected light from the window, had turned the color of split-pea soup. The candle had long since guttered out. Labored snores. Harry stood, holding the money sock and the kerchief, watching the street below. The little dog did an agitated dance. It seemed he was looking for Harry. A wagon passed, drawn by a single white horse. A tuckered-out farmer, leaving market day late. Harry looked up to see if he could see the coming century, or maybe just the comet, its fantail wide as a peacock's, sowing sparks like seeds above the bank's peaked roof. Clouds packed the sky; he couldn't see very straight after all the beer he'd drunk. When his gaze dropped again he saw in the street Bob Cochran and Sue-Sue, her dark skin bold against the paleness of her dress. She wasin Harry's blurry sightthe most beautiful woman he'd ever stopped to watch. They danced (she stiffly, with swollen, trampled feet) to music he couldn't hearmusic from the future, perhapsin front of the café window, silhouetted, ghostly, by a faint electric light.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews