Authors: Brad Smith
It was two weeks before Ray could get up in the morning without feeling as if his body was a seized piece of machinery. He had to oil his joints with coffee before he was loose enough to pull his socks on. He was surprised to find that he was in such sad physical shape, although he should have expected it. He hadn't worked out much in jail. He'd meant to, but in the end he'd found it boring, like everything else inside.
The roofing crew was working in a new subdivision of low-income housing, just north of Kitchener. Three hundred and forty-two houses, two-story duplexes, basic cookie-cutter design, tiny lots, the backyards not much bigger than a good-size automobile.
Ray had hitched to work the first couple of days, and then Steve Allman had let him have an old Coupe de Ville that had been sitting in the compound. The Caddy was dark blue; the radio worked, and the air didn't. The motor ran pretty well, smoked a little, but was quiet. Steve had let Ray have the car against wages.
They were getting paid by the square and could pretty much work their own hours. The crew was contracted to roof sixty of the houses in the subdivision. There were four men in the crew: Doc Randolph, Neil Mulvale, Ray, and Steve Allman. There was a kid whom everyone called Pottsy who cleaned up after the crew, ran for coffee, sometimes carried bundles.
Most days, Steve worked alongside his men, never came on like a boss or a wheel of any kind. Ray had trouble keeping up with the others for the first few days, but nothing was mentioned of it. Everybody kept to their own pace.
Friday morning, Ray arrived on site at seven o'clock, barely light out. He finished a take-out coffee sitting in the Caddy and then got out, strapped his belt on, and walked to the next house in line. Doc was sitting on a bundle of shingles, looking sleepily across the open field to the north.
“Morning,” Ray said.
“What're you doing?”
“What're you meditating on?”
Doc stood up, shook off his lethargy like a wet dog after a swim. “I'm meditating on gettin' this motherfucker shingled, gettin' paid, and gettin' laid. That's what.”
“Well, you're a spiritual sonofabitch, I'll give you that.”
Ray walked to the truck, pulled down an extension ladder, propped it against the house, ran it up to the eave. Neil arrived, and the three of them spent the next half hour carrying bundles up to the roof. They were just starting to shingle when Pottsy showed up, driving his mother's Jetta.
“Where the fuck you been?” Neil asked.
“I had a late night,” the kid said. “Went to see Urban Shocker in concert.”
“They're this awesome rap group.”
“Shit,” Neil said.
It was a cool October day, a good day for working. Steve Allman was out pricing new jobs, and it was just the three of them shingling. The kid was dragging his ass, and Neil kept after him. By noon, when they quit for lunch, the house was a quarter finished.
They sat on the shingle pallets to eat. Pottsy hadn't brought a lunch, and he drove to the corner store and came back with Fritos and root beer.
“You kids and your health foods,” Doc said.
Ray finished his sandwich and lay back on the pallet in the sun, stretching his back muscles. He was beginning to feel pretty good, making some money, getting in shape. Of course, just being able to come and go as he pleased was reason enough to feel good these days. What he might do with the rest of his life was another matter, something he was going to have to think about, but not today. Hell, he had houses to shingle.
“How can you listen to that rap shit?” he heard Neil ask the kid.
“How can you listen to country and western?” the kid asked back.
“Country and western is real music.”
“Well, rap is my music,” the kid said. “It's poetry; I can relate to it.”
“Yeah,” Neil said. “You're a white kid from Middleburg. You can relate.”
“Urban Shocker is white.”
“Shit, that's even worse,” Neil said. “White kids pretending they're black. Everybody in the world wants to be something they're not. White kids wanna be black; black kids wanna be white. Poor folks wanna be rich.”
“You wanna be smart,” Doc added.
Doc laughed and looked at Pottsy. “You gotta listen to jazz, kid. Black, white, it doesn't matter. Jazz is the only original music ever to come out of North America. Ever.”
“What about rock and roll?” Pottsy asked.
“Fuck rock and roll.”
The kid finished his Frito lunch and walked over to throw the trash into the iron dumpster where he stowed the shingle remnants. Walking back, he looked at Ray, reclined on the shingles, eyes closed, hands clasped behind his head for a pillow.
“What about you, Ray? What do you listen to?”
“Depends on what you're doin',” Ray said without opening his eyes. “If you're traveling, listen to Hank Williams. If you're lonely, listen to Hank Williams. If you're having problems with a woman, then you better listen to Hank Williams. The rest of the timeâwell, I'd recommend Hank Williams.”
Steve Allman drove in then, got out of the truck, took his tool belt from the back, put it on, and walked over. Ray raised himself to a sitting position.
“Steve,” Doc said. “What kind of music you listen to at home?”
“I got one wife and four kids,” Steve said. “The only thing I want to hear at home is silence.”
They went back to work. Steve and Ray carried up a couple of lengths of valley and cut it to fit the dormers on the front of the house. They chalked the lines on the valley and then went back to shingling, each taking a dormer.
“You ever lay cedar shakes?” Steve asked after a time.
“Once or twice, when I was a kid,” Ray said.
“I priced a place this morning,” Steve said. “Old farmhouse in Caledon. Guy wants the original cedar roof. Figured you and I could do it next weekend.”
When Ray got home from work, it was full dark and Pete Culpepper was gone. Ray took a cold beer from the fridge, filled the bathtub with water hot as he could stand it, and climbed in. He laid his head back against the porcelain, drank the beer, and let the water lubricate his muscles. He drank the beer so fast he had to get out after a few minutes and walk wet-footed into the kitchen for another.
The telephone began to ring, and he let it. It would be for Pete anyway. The phone rang maybe a dozen timesâPete didn't have an answering machine and wouldn't know how to operate one if he didâand then it quit. Ray leaned back, drank the second beer slowly, and willed his body and brain to relax.
When he got out, he put on clean jeans and a cotton shirt. In the kitchen he fried a steak and three eggs, ate standing up against the counter. Then he put the dishes in the sink and sat down at the kitchen table and wondered what to do.
It was Friday night, he had money in his pocket, and nothing that resembled responsibility to any thing or any person. There had been a time, in his younger days, when he wouldn't even have made it home after work, just headed straight for the bars. He'd had more energy then, he remembered, along with a huge capacity for getting himself into trouble. One had waned; with a little luck, and better judgment, maybe the other would as well.
He found Etta's number in the phone book, sat down, and looked at the phone on the wall for a long time. She would be home with Homer, he figured. Ray wondered if Homer really had Alzheimer's. Could be he was just getting old and forgetful. Maybe in time he'd forget about hating Ray's guts. He closed the phone book and grabbed his jacket from the peg inside the door and drove into town.
He had no intention of driving to the ballpark, but he drove there anyway. He saw the floods from two blocks away and knew that there was a game on. Home games were always played on Fridays. The ballpark was located on Canal Street, and it was built along the bank of the old feeder, in a valley of sorts. Ray parked up above, on the main street, which ran out of town. The teams were on the field, the game in the third inning when he arrived. He got out of the Caddy and sat on the hood, thinking he would watch a couple innings before he went down to see the guys.
He could see Bo Parker, sitting in the dugout, obviously not in the lineup. Pudge McIntyre was beside him, still managing the team, Ray guessed. Pudge was working over a wad of gum like it was the enemy, meaning he was still off the smokes.
There was a stringbean lefty on the mound for the home side. He had a wild windup, lifting his leg so high he almost kicked himself in the ear with his shoe, and then heaving himself forward in a jangle of arms and legs, releasing the ball from about three quarter. The movement was so herky-jerky that Ray wondered how the kid ever managed to throw strikes and then, watching for a bit, realized for the most part that he couldn't. The bases were full when Pudge walked out to talk to the kid the first time, and they were still full, with three runs scored and nobody out, when he pulled him a few minutes later.
Al Robins came in to relieve. When Ray was on the team the young guys used to joke that Al had three pitches: slow, slower, and slowest. Of course, what the kids couldn't understand was that a pitcher pitches with his brain, not his arm. Ray watched, smiling, as Al threw a total of four pitches, got a pop-up and a double-play ball, and walked off the field. Slow, slower, and slowest. Ray could see the guys kidding Al as he went into the dugout, and he knew what they were sayingâragging him about his age, his paunch, his lack of speed. The same things Ray might say when he went down to the field.
After another inning he got into the Caddy, sat there with the engine running for several minutes. Then he pulled out onto the street and headed out of town.
On the inside, all a man thinks about is getting out. Night and day, it's always there, like an unfulfilled promiseâthat always indistinct point of time somewhere in the distance when he is no longer in stir. It occupies a man's head when he's thinking about it, and it occupies his head when he isn't. The mental pursuit of that future moment is so powerful that he invariably forgets to consider the next question.
What to do when it finally happens.
Because being out with nothing to do and nowhere to go is not all that much different from being in. The difference between being inside and being out was that on the inside, a man always had a plan. And that was to get out. Being out robbed him of that objective, and it was in looking for a brand-new objective that he usually got himself in trouble.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Dean and Paulie were at the bar in the Slamdance. Dean drinking a vodka martini, Paulie, beneath his porkpie, nursing a beer, both transfixed by Misty strutting the stage. Dean was pissed at Tiny Montgomery; he'd asked Tiny for Grey Goose vodkaâthat's what Misty drankâand Tiny had told him he wouldn't know Grey Goose vodka from gray goose shit. So Dean, on his third drink, had yet to tip the big man. Tiny was taking his penance in stride; Dean wasn't much of a tipper in the best of humor.
Misty was into her finale when the door opened and a guy walked in, a guy Dean recognized but couldn't finger. The guy was late thirties, brown hair, thin. Wearing jeans and a leather jacket. When he came under the light of the bar Dean could see he had a slight hook in his nose and a thin scar across the point of his chin. His hands on the bar were large and calloused.
“Paulie, who's that dude?” Dean asked.
Paulie glanced over real quick, then went back to Misty, who was stark naked now, on a blanket on the floor, knees up, giving the boys on pervert row a reason to pay six bucks for a bottle of beer.
“I seen him before someplace,” Paulie said.
Tiny Montgomery walked over to the man, and they shook hands across the bar, Tiny smiling broadly. He brought the man a beer, refused payment. They talked until a customer drew Tiny away. The man in the jacket took his beer to a corner table and sat with his back to the wall.
Misty finished up, gathered her clothes and her blanket, and headed backstage. Paulie turned back to the bar and reached for his beer. He was thinking about asking Misty to go on a picnic.
Dean drank off his vodka, signaled to Tiny for another, and the big man brought it over. This time Dean tipped.
“Who's that guy you were talking to?” Dean asked.
“In the leather jacket in the corner.”
“Ray Dokes.” Dean tried the name like he was sampling a drink. “How come I know him?”
“He's the guy,” Paulie said. “I just remembered.”
“He's the guy put Sonny in the hospital for all them months,” Paulie said.
“Sonofabitch,” Dean said. “I thought he went to jail for that.”
“He did,” Tiny said. “That's why you haven't seen him around, genius.”
Dean took his drink and turned around, leaned back with his elbows on the bar. Ray Dokes sat with his legs crossed, watching as a fresh dancer ascended the stage. The dancer was dressed as a cowgirl, with six-shooters, a red cowboy hat, and a bullwhip, which she cracked periodically over the heads of the patrons up front.
“He doesn't look so tough,” Dean said.
“What's looks got to do with it?” Paulie asked.
“Shut the fuck up.”
Misty came out of the back room, wearing a short tight skirt and boots, which meant she was still working. She cast an irritable eye about the room, as if she was looking for someone who wasn't there. When Dean waved to her, she rolled her eyes and walked over. She stepped between the two of them, and Paulie took the opportunity to smell her hair, her neck. She smelled, he decided, like a goddess.
“Johnny Walker Blue,” she said to Tiny. She indicated Dean. “He's paying.”
Misty smiled impatiently as Dean did as he was told. She'd been hanging with the two pretty steadily for the past week or so. Dean was an easy touch for drinks, and she had, just a couple days earlier, hit Paulie up for two hundred dollars, saying she needed the money to buy her son a pair of hockey skates. This in spite of the fact that Misty was taking home two grand a week and that her kid, who lived in Wisconsin with his father, was barely two years old and probably not all that interested in hockey.