After World War Two these guys who knew the score began to take over. They’d been around all the time, we knew them, their wives and kids. We worked with them, maybe even went to high school with some of them or to night school at the Purdue Extension. They lived in town just like the rest of us, except maybe they were a little higher on the totem pole at the Plant than we were.
Then came the post war boom and these guys got picked by the bigwigs in the main office out east to move up. Not only did they move up but they started moving out – to the suburbs with these sprawling ranch houses or double size Cape Cods. It was the god damndest thing how they just left, and how we looked around and saw we were still on the same old block. We weren’t that much dumber than they were, in fact we weren’t any dumber than they were. But they knew how to work their way through the organization at the Plant all right.
There were some of those boys in the Twenties, after the First War, but the Depression and then WWII did them in. Come the post war years, there they or their kids were. They had two kinds of eyes. The one, not so high on the totem, were restless, impatient, flashy. The other kind, the ones that were high up or going to be, were soft, patient, almost dull. They took you in, up to a point, and then the lights went out and they were thinking of something more important while they were trained on you, even when they smiled at you or joked.
It’s a skill, these boys have, a skill a lot of us never latch on to.
I’m telling you this, but I was only ten when the War ended. I’m telling you what my father told me, as loyal and hardworking a man who ever lived. And always just a step or two behind those fellows who knew the game better than he did.
Every Sunday after eleven o’clock mass he and I went to the Elks Club for an hour or so. In those days Indiana had tough Protestant blue laws, so you couldn’t buy a drink on Sunday except at a private club. Probably the exemption was for the benefit of country clubs, where legislators and their backslapping pals drank.
There was a man who lived at the Elks Club. He puzzled me because he had no family, no home except the Elks Club and no job except to clean up and keep an eye on the Club.
He had soft eyes that took you in, up to a point, and then the lights went out and they were caught by something else on his mind, even when he smiled at you or told a joke. But he wasn’t one of the higher-ups at the Plant or anywhere else.
Well, that’s not completely true. He was a war hero, a World War One doughboy who was wounded more than once – shot, bayoneted, bombed, and finally poison gassed. A Hart, Schaffner, Marks shirt box he kept under his bed was filled with his medals, a chestful of them, and snapshots of his chums and comrades. Every one of them would end up dead in the trenches, except him, who was passed over as dead and stumbled around No Man’s Land until…well, as far as I knew then, until he ended up at the Elk’s Club.
Once I said to my father that he was just a glorified janitor and my father looked pained that his own son would have such a cold hearted opinion. I don’t know where I got the phrase – probably from some smart talking movie. Not long after that we were at the Elks and some big mouth down the bar began talking loud and obnoxious about “rummies” and about resenting how much of his dues went as a “handout for some no-hope.”
Denver – that was our friend’s name – looked away, like he’d been slapped across the face for the hundredth time and made the hard choice to do nothing about it.
“Den, don’t listen to that crap,” my father said. “He’s just another big mouth hillbilly with a skinful of booze.
My father, who had a way of taking command very quietly, said something to the bartender and then took Denver aside, to the snooker table near the slot machines. Red, the bartender, eased down towards the big mouth, who was talking louder and meaner now, and leaned over the bar to say something that only the big mouth would hear.
The big mouth finished his drink, elaborately, and said he hoped everybody at the god damn bar knew this would be taken up at the next members’ meeting. All the boys along the bar were paying more attention to such matters as stirring their drinks, brushing cigarette ashes off the bar, or looking for a match. The big mouth made a split second move as if he were going to challenge Red but thought better of that, and left. Lucky for him he did. Red had a sap, a blackjack, under this white apron. He’d let me hold it once and I was shocked at the weight of it. It was a slug of lead wrapped in shiny black leather, heavy as a hammer.
“Are these illegal,” I asked, hefting the black beauty in my hand.
“You could kill a guy with one of these.”
“Only if you have to.”
Denver and my father came back to the bar, my father was buying, and the conversation was about a heavyweight fighter from Detroit, Lee Oma. Oma had been one fight away from meeting Joe Louis for the title, but he threw the fight and lost his title shot.
Denver and my father talked about Lee Oma affectionately, shaking their heads and smiling. I didn’t get it.
“How could he throw away a chance like that?”
Denver and my dad smiled. My question seemed to make them like Oma even more now. I thought they were a little nuts. I was trying to get with the way grownups thought, especially these grownups who had something going for them that I wanted for myself when I grew up. But I couldn’t figure this one out.
“A man who was true to his own best self,” Denver said laughing, and coughing a little from his damaged lungs.
“Crooked to the end,” said my dad raising his shot glass and clicking it against Denver’s. My dad who had not one single crooked bone in his body.
I didn’t get it.
When we got home for Sunday dinner my father told my mother about the big mouth. “Red should have tapped him behind the ear,” she said. Red had showed her his blackjack too.
It wasn’t just that Denver was a war hero. That wasn’t enough for them to take him in and treat him with such tenderness and respect. There was no shortage of war heroes. Actually, there’d been another war since his and a whole new crew of guys who’d been through what he’d been through. There was something else about Denver, but I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m setting you up for some big answer here. I’m just telling you about something a little mysterious, and important in a singular way, at an industrial northwest Indiana Elks Club in the late forties.
Nobody declared to me, even when I asked about it, why there was such affection for this broken, alcoholic man. The grownups would tell you about his life – how he was once a bigshot in real estate on the coast; how he was married to a woman as beautiful as Rita Hayworth; how he just pitched it all and headed east; how he could have pitched for the Washington Senators before the war ruined his lungs; how he wrote poems to be read at the Lodge meetings, a new poem for every meeting; how he always wore a suit and tie and moved so softly, gesturing with the softest possible movement, but making his point better than shouting; how he listened to classical music along with the big bands on the Victorola in his room and would get teary when he explained it to you; and how he had a daughter, but didn’t know where she was.
These were men who worked hard and worked overtime every chance they got to get ahead, to provide for their families. And they craved this man’s attention, and approval. They asked to read his new poem about the brothers who had crossed over before us.
I look back now and remember, to Denver’s credit, he didn’t take advantage of them, did his clean up work earnestly, for the most part held his liquor. He may have come down in the world, but he was not interested in showing off about his fall..
My mother had a crush on him, the sort of crush a sexy niece might have on a favorite uncle. My father was smart enough to relax and enjoy how pretty she was and not get all itchy and nervous the way less confident men might be. You’d see a lot of that in bars that couples frequented.
Denver was a couple of inches over six feet tall, my mother was an inch or two under five feet. They both were terrific dancers, not jitterbugs but slow dancers, and could lend an actual touch of elegance to the dance floor in the Elks Club bar. Sometimes when Denver was a little down they might dance to an Artie Shaw record even if it was the middle of the afternoon and there were only the poker players and a few serious drinkers in the bar. There wouldn’t be many lights on and maybe the place was half decorated for Saint Patty’s Day (green derbies, shiny shamrocks, white clay pipes). The bartender was bringing in ice and checking his stock, and they’d be dancing real close and smooth. Watching Denver dance I was always struck by the excellence of his shoeshine. I have never been able to get my shoes that bright, but he learned the shoeshine trade in K.C. he once told me. He tried to teach me the ins and outs of the spit shine, but I still don’t get it.
His feet were so tiny for a big man. You felt that if Arthur Murray made one of those footprints-on-the floor-dance step patterns to show Denver’s moves, they could use dots instead of footprints. He was big as a heavyweight but danced like a tall lean welterweight.
More than once some guy who didn’t know my dad or mom would make a crack like “If that was my wife I’d be pullin’ the plug on the juke box.” My dad loved moments like that when he could talk tough and worldly wise (which he was) like Spencer Tracy and put a buttinsky in his place. “The lady likes to dance, and I like to watch her dance,” he’d say, closing the subject for sure.
“Farmer,” you’d hear under his breath. And, as both a pleasure and a warning, he’d sip his bourbon, 100 Proof Old Fitz. Farmer… that was the worst insult my father could imagine, he being a 100% big city boy who knew his way around, and then some.
Getting back to the Saint Patty’s Day decorations, my father and a few of the other lodge brothers had to finish putting them up that year. Denver disappeared for a week or so and was the cause of general concern. “Probably he’s off on a toot,” my mother said, having the same long-reaching look she had when she talked about her brother in the South Pacific during the war. The word “toot” was a funny word, but she didn’t mean it funny. She was afraid for the man, as were five out of six of the Elks membership.
The other one sixth were smug and superior, with I Told You So smeared all over their maps. My father’s opinion was they were of the rural, Protestant persuasion and should go back to the tractor or the plow. But he knew they weren’t going back.
My mother’s hunch was right. Denver was gone, on a bender, for a week. I can piece together some of the story from what he and his companion for the week told Red the bartender. At the end of his week away, Denver showed up at the door to the Elks Club in the company of a woman half his age. Her name was Doreen. Denver was breathing heavily and groaning under his breath, as if he were carrying something heavy and didn’t want to drop it. Doreen (whom Red described as “half way to good looking in a peroxide sort of way”) said in a whiskey voice ripping with sincerity, “This man knows it all. He knows everything there is to know about a woman. He knows things I didn’t know myself. God, he knows his way around.”
Red did not want Doreen to elaborate. Male-female matters were terra incognita to Red and he wanted it to stay that way. “You got your homo-sexuals, your regular sexuals, and all the other types of sexuals. Me, I ain’t. I’m a no-sexual and damn glad of it. It’s a one way ticket to Heartbreak USA.”
“I never knew I could be such a woman,” Doreen confided in Red, having a couple of cognacs for the road.
“Honey,” Red said, “keep it to yourself. I got no use for that stuff.”
“You’re probably right, big guy. Look at me. I’m already taking a real shot in the heart on this one. Denver told me Sayonara and he meant it for certain. Forever. When will I ever know such a man again?”
It went on like this for an hour or so, as Red told it. She started crying and telling specifics such as Red had no idea existed. In Doreen’s defense, you have to remember the girl had been drinking — and all the other — for a solid week now. In four states no less: Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and a quick sidetrip across the Mississippi to Minnesota. “We made mincemeat of the Mann Act,” she told Red, who winced when she said it.
All the while she was telling her tale Denver, who thought she was long gone, was lying in his bed upstairs. He was listening to the little radio beside his bed. My father was one of the Elks who checked in on him. “I had some catching up to do,” he told my father. “You know what I mean?” My dad knew what he meant. Everybody knows what Denver meant. We’ve all got that desperate Something humming inside that feels like it’s losing out, that wants to do some catching up. You do your work, you do your duty, you keep your nose clean – and you, like Denver and Doreen deserve a little catching up after all that good behavior.
“She’s a sweet kid,” Denver told my father the last time they talked.
My father didn’t say anything.
“No, I mean it, Hap. We started out just seeing what might develop and then we got to know each other. Maybe when we reached Milwaukee – I’m not too clear on that part. I’d say we were a little in love there but I had to warn the kid off me.”
My dad was quiet. He held up his end of the conversation, but often he did it by keeping quiet. He’d look you in the eye and take it all in, but didn’t say much.
“Well it did wonders for me,” Denver said. “You can just do too goddam much right behavior, Hap. This was just what the doctor ordered, but I hope it doesn’t hit Doreen too hard. She reads you know. She likes William Saroyan. When I heard that I said to her, ‘Hang on to your bonnet, Doreen, we’re goin’ to take us a ride.’ And it was just what the doctor ordered. You know I won seven hundred dollars at dice in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. We were driving over to LaCrosse then and I was afraid they’d follow us and rob me for the money, but Doreen let me know she had a gun in her purse and nobody was going to push us around. God, imagine. If I was twenty, — no…fifteen – years younger….”
He fell asleep then and my father tucked him in, left the radio on, and went down to the bar. Doreen had called a cab and left. Red observed, “It’s like one of those movies, where you wish things worked out better. She’s an awful nice kid. She reads books, you know. I mean, if I was going to run away with some floozie, God forbid, Doreen might just be the woman for me.”
That night, at closing, Red went up to check on Denver, see if he was hungry or whatever. He was going to cook himself some eggs and bacon before he went home from the club, and hoped Denver would join him. Denver was dead, lying on his back with the covers tucked up under his chin like my father had left him. His eyes were open and the second Red saw those eyes he knew what was what. Red had bartended in some of the toughest speakeasies in the county, and this was a notoriously tough county. Much of the rest of Indiana wished Lake County would secede, maybe join Chicago in a life of crime and heavy industry. But Lake County and Red remained Hoosiers and it was where Red got his practice looking into the eye of a dead man.
“Sometimes, kid,” Red told me at the bar, “some times you wonder.” This was the next morning.
I agreed: I was wondering all the time. Red was pouring me an Orange Crush, on the house, and a pack of cashews. My father was on the phone to Denver’s sister, in Kansas it turned out, not Colorado. Red was talking man to man because he knew that Denver liked me.
“Sometimes you wonder about the whole setup – life I mean. The whole setup. It seems rigged. You get some of these no-goods who seem to be popping up all over the place, brown nosing their way right up the line. Then you have a good soul like Denver…gone under, without one nickel to rub against another.”
“It stinks,” I said, and Red told me I was a very wise young man for my age, a kid with moxie. If my dad wasn’t here, he said, he’d pour me a real drink.
My father came back to the bar looking serious and relieved that the call was over. “Did you know his name was really Denver?” he asked Red.
“Of course it was,” Red said, pouring a shot for my dad. Old Fitz.. “He wasn’t the kind of guy to have some nickname.”
My father shrugged. “I should have known,” he said and raised his shot glass. “Denver.” Red raised his glass as well: “To our beamish boy, and the widow he left behind.” We all drank to the two of them, the Quick and the Dead, as Red put it.
At home, my mother talked about Denver too. “I will always miss that big lug,” she said. She did. She cried most of the time for the first twenty-four hours after he died, and talked about him for the rest of her life, usually around Saint Patrick’s Day or when she heard Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine.” The night Denver died my dad had to stay around the house keeping us kids quiet while she was up in her room with the door closed and the lights out. I remember he missed his bowling night, which he didn’t begrudge because he was not one of those guys who find their main juice away from home. Home was, in actual fact, where his heart was. Many of his co-workers at the Plant and many of his fellow bowlers could see that on him and made fun of him. But my mother said about him, “That man was born to be a mother, the way he loves his home and family. I don’t know how the hell he does it.” Mothering didn’t come as easy to my mother as to my father. She was the restless one, always thinking over possibilities.
Denver was cremated and sent back to Kansas for a military burial. The Elks Club got uncomfortable to be in not long after that, too many of those smart alecks, guys who ‘know the score’ and don’t mind telling you they do. They finally took over everything they thought counted – the Plant, the school board, the town zoning board, the Elks Club. Those of us who didn’t know the score got whatever was left over.
We all thought Red would do a Denver and die in the club. But things got unbearable for him, waiting on one wise ass after another. He lit out for a dive, the kind of joint the down-and-out, the daydreamers, and second-rate grifters drank at. Red felt some regret for the old Elks Club, he told my dad and mom, who paid him regular visits at his seedy new haunt. The Tropics Club it was called. There were paper palms and some bamboo — once décor, now just leftovers.
“The Elks was a good run while it lasted,” he said. Doreen showed up now and then and would get morbid about Denver midway through her second drink. “That’s okay,” Red said. “I feel morbid about the guy too. To survive the trenches and get killed by going on a bender is just too much. Too damn much.”
Red and Doreen actually went downstate to French Lick Resort for a weekend. Mostly, at least the way Red tells it, they talked about Denver. As for anything else, say in the way of romance, Red’s answer was “no offence, but I think we should all mind our own businesses.”
Except he did put a soft touch on that last with, “There is a young lady who truly knows her stuff.” We all paused then for a moment of silence there under the dusty palm trees, each in his own way reflecting on the stuff that Doreen knew.
Copyright © Jim Hazard 2002
Jim Hazard grew up in the steel mill region of Northwest Indiana, lives now in Milwaukee where he’s a writer for Milwaukee Magazine and a teacher. He has been jazz musician, steel worker, hod carrier, and school teacher. A book of narrative poems was published in l985, titled New Year’s Eve in Whiting, Indiana.
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