Authors: Norman Mailer
By the time he is fourteen he is able to use a drill. Good money for a kid, but down in the shafts, at the extreme end of the tunnel there isn't room to stand. Even a kid works in a crouch, his feet stumbling in the refuse of the ore that has been left from filling the last cart. It's hot, of course, and damp, and the lights from their helmets are lost quickly in the black corridors. The drill is extremely heavy and a boy has to hold the butt against his chest and clutch the handles with all his strength as the bit vibrates into the rock.
When the hole is drilled, the charge is set up, and the miners retreat around a bend in the tunnel, and explode the dynamite. The loosened ore is shoveled onto a tiny flatcar, and when it is filled they roll it away, stopping to clear the tracks of the earth that has scattered over it. Then they come back with another cart and continue to shovel. Red has ten hours a day, six days a week. In the wintertime he can see the sky on Sundays.
Puberty in the coal dust.
In the late spring evenings he sits with his girl in a little park at the end of the company street. Behind them the town ends, and the brown bare hills, deepening in the twilight, roll away into the west. Long after it is dark in the valley, they can still see the last striations of the sunset beyond the western peaks.
Beautiful scenery, the girl murmurs.
To hell with that, I'm getting out of here. Red at eighteen.
I always wonder what's on the other side of the hills, the girl says quietly.
He grinds his shoes in the grudged sparse grass of the park. I got restless feet, I'm like my old man was, he used to be full of ideas, had a bunch of books, but my mother went and sold them. That's a woman for you.
How can you go, Red? She'll be needing the money you make.
Listen, when the time comes; I'm just gonna pick up and go. A man's gotta get out where he don't owe nobody nothing. (Staring into the darkness. Already there's the deep impatience, the anger, and the other thing, the distillate of the sunset beyond the encircling hills.) You're a good kid, Agnes. (The sense of minor loss and pleasurable self-pity as he thinks of leaving her.) But I tell ya I ain't gonna end up living the kind of life my old man did. I ain't gonna sweat out my guts in the mine.
You're going to do a lot of things, Red.
Sure. (He breathes the sweet-laden night air and smells the earth. The knowledge of strength, the taunt at the surrounding hills.) You know, I'll tell ya something, I don't believe in God.
You don't mean that, Red!
(Underneath the blanket his father's body had been crushed almost flat.) Yeah, that's right, I just don't believe in God.
Sometimes I don't either, Agnes says.
Yeah, I can talk to you,
Only you want to go away.
Well. (There is the other knowledge. Her body is young and strong and he knows the smell of her breasts, which are like powdered infant-flesh, but all the women turn to cordwood in the town.) You take that guy Joe Mackey who got Alice with a kid and left her, my own sister, but I tell ya I don't blame him. You got to see that, Agnes.
Yeah, that's right. It's praise to the eighteen-year-old.
Of course you can always depend on the mines to shut down.
It's good for a week; there's hunting for jack rabbit and a ball game or two, but it loses its edge. There's more time to be in the house, and it's all bedrooms except for the kitchen. His kid brothers are always making noises, and Alice is sullen as she nurses her bastard. When he was working it was easier, but now he's with them all the time.
I'm getting out of this town, he says at last.
What? No, by God, no, his mother says. Just like his father. (A short squat woman who has never lost her Swedish accent.)
I can't take it any more, I'm gonna rot my life away, Eric's old enough to work in the mines if they ever open.
You don't go.
You're not going to tell me! he shouts. What the hell does a man get out of it, some food for his belly?
Soon Eric works in the mines. You get married. A nice Swenska.
He slaps his cup against the saucer. To hell with that, get tied down with a marriage. (Agnes. The idea is not wholly unpleasant, and he rejects it furiously.) I'm getting out of here, I ain't gonna waste my life in back of a drill, waiting for a goddam tunnel to collapse on me.
His sister comes into the kitchen. You lousy kid, you're only eighteen, where do you talk of getting away?
Stay out of this, he shouts.
I'm not going to stay out, it's my business more than ma's. That's all you men are good for, you get us in trouble and then you skip out. Well, you can't do it! she screams.
What's the matter? There'll always be some grub for ya.
Maybe I want to get out, maybe I'm sick to death of hanging around here without a man who'll marry me.
That was your lookout. You're not going to stop me, goddammit.
You're just like that louse that skipped out on me, if there's anything that's worthless it's a man who won't stick around to face the music.
(Trembling) And if I'd been Joe Mackey I'da skipped out on ya too. That was the smartest thing he ever did.
Take sides against your sister.
What the hell was in it for him, he had all the good out of you. (She slaps him. Tears of anger and guilt form in his eyes. He blinks them back, and glares at her.)
His mother sighs. You go then. It's bad thing when family fights like animals. Go.
What about the mines? (He feels himself weakening.)
Eric. She sighs again. Someday you know just how bad you be tonight, by God.
A man's got to get out. He's trapped in a hole here. (This once, it gives him no relief.)
In 1931 all the long voyages end in a hobo jungle.
But the itinerary is various:
Freight trains out of Montana through Nebraska into Iowa.
Handouts at farmhouses for a day's work.
The harvest and working in a granary.
Sleeping in parks, being picked up for vagrancy.
When they let him out of the county workhouse he walks back to town, spends the dollar he has made for a good meal and a package of cigarettes, and catches a freight out of town that night. The moon gives a silver wash to the cornfields, and he curls up in a flatcar and watches the sky. An hour later another hobo drops into his car. He has a flask of whisky and they drink it up and finish Red's cigarettes. In the flatcar lying on his back the sky quivers in time to the clacking and jolting of the train. It's not too bad.
Jesus, tonight's Saturday night, the other bum says.
On Saturday night in his mining town there is always a dance in the basement of the church. The round tables have checked cloths on them, and each family sits around one table, the miners and their grown sons, the wives and daughters and grandparents, the younger kids. There are even infants slobbering drowsily at their mother's teats.
Only it stinks. The miners bring a bottle with them, and fall into sullen drunks, tired men at the end of a week. By midnight they're quarreling with their wives. All through his childhood his father would be cursing at his mother while the company band -- violin, guitar and piano -- would be whining out a square dance or polka.
To a kid from a mining town, getting drunk in a flatcar on Saturday night is still fun. The horizon extends for a million miles over the silver cornfields.
In the hobo jungle, in the marshes outside town near the railroad tracks, a few shanties sprawl in the weeds. The roofs are made of rusted sheets of corrugated iron, and the grass inside grows through the planking. Most of the men sleep on the ground outside, and wash in the brown sluggish river that sloughs through the flat railroad bogs. Time lolls away in the sun; the flies are golden-green against the gray and orange litter of the garbage dump. There are a few women in the camp, and at night Red and a few of the other men stay with them. In the daytime, it's wandering through town, sifting the garbage cans, and trying for handouts. But most of all it's sitting in the shade watching the trains labor past, just talking.
I got it from Joe they're gonna be kicking us outa here soon.
They's gonna be a revolution, men, I tell ya what we got to do is make a march on Washington.
Hoover'll run ya out. What are ya doin', kidding yourself, Mac?
I can see us marchin'. 'I Love a Parade, the Beat of a Drum.'
Listen, boys, I watched it myself right from the beginning, it's the fuggin Jews, it's the fuggin International Jews.
Mac, ya don't know what you're talkin' about, what we want is revolutionary action, we're being exploited. You got to wait for the dictatorship of the proletariat.
What are you, a Communist? Listen, I owned my own business, I was a big man in my town, I had money in the bank, I was all set to go but there was a conspiracy.
It's the big boys, they're scared of us, 'I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal, You,' what do ya think those songs don' mean anything? That's the only line anybody remembers.
Red sits there drowsing. (They're full of crap. Talk is pretty cheap. The thing to do is to keep moving, and keep your mouth shut.)
You think I'm a Communist; listen, I'm a student of human nature, I'm self-educated. American aspirations, that's what those songs are, opium for the masses, catch phrases to fool a man. Listen. . . it's a passion for movement, it's to trick us into staying at home and being exploited.
They're gonna move us out, men.
I'm movin' anyway, Red says. Itchy feet.
Somehow it seems as if you never do go under, there is always the providential handout, or the pair of shoes you can buy after the ones you own flap in the wind. Somehow, there is always a little job, or some meal to keep you going, or there's a new town to go to, there is even the good feeling once every month or two when you catch a freight at dawn, and the land rises out of the night and you're not too hungry.
If you throw a handful of straw into a river, some of it stays afloat even in a rapids, there is always something to give you a boost. You keep going and the summer ends, the nights get chill (half a buck in your pocket and winter acoming) but there's always a railroad track heading south, there is usually a jail where they'll let you sleep the night.
And if you get through it there's Relief after a while, and even a couple of jobs. Dishwasher, short-order cook, a shingler, a farm hand, a house painter, a plumber, even a gasoline pump.
In 'thirty-five he works in a restaurant for almost a year, the best dishwasher they ever had. (The rush hour lasts from twelve to three at that end of the kitchen. The dishes come clanking down the dumbwaiter, and the tray man mops the food and grease with his hand, fingers the lipstick on the glasses to loosen it, and drops them in a rack. In the machine, the steam vibrates and sings, whips out at the other end, where the finish man pulls out the tray with tongs, and wiggles the plates with his fingertips as he flips them on a pile. You don't grab it with your bare hand, Jack.)
After work Red goes back to his furnished room (two-fifty a week, the carpeting on the stairs has thickened with age and springs underfoot like soft dusty turf) and lies down on his bed. If he's not too pooped, he gets up after a while, and drifts down to the bar around the corner. (The gray cracked asphalt, the garbage cans spilling over in the areaways, the stippled light of the neon sign, two letters are missing.)
A man always has philosophy. I'll tell ya, Red, I used to think for a time I made a mistake gettin' married. I used to get mad, you know, I'd start wondering what am I workin' for, but, aah, you get over it. You take those two kids over there feeling each other in that booth. Right now one of them can't even breathe without the other -- my old lady used to be like that with me. I don't get mad, I know what the score is, those kids are gonna end up like you, like me, like everybody.
(The beer is flat and tastes like pennies.) Me, Red says, I never horse around much with the women. They just want to trap ya, I seen enough of it.
Aw, it ain't that bad, there's good things about marriage and women, but it ain't what you think you're gonna get when you start off. You know a married man has worries, I'll tell ya, Red, sometimes I wish I been the places you have.
Yeah, I'll take Two-bit Annie.
In the brothel the girls wear halters and trim panties with a tropical print, an actress has made the style famous this year. They gather like burlesque queens in the living room with the ashtrays and the chipped modernistic furniture.
Okay, Pearl, let's go.
He follows her up the gray spongy carpeting of the stairs, watching the automatic waggle of her hips.
Haven't seen ya in a long time, Red.
Just two weeks.
Yeah, ya went to Roberta last time. She reproves him, Dearie.
In the cubicle, the blanket is folded at the foot of the bed, smudged with the shoes of other men. Pearl is humming. (BETTY COED HAS LIPS OF RED FOR HARVARD.) She slips his dollar under the pillow. Easy, Red, momma's had a long hard day.