It was not easy for me to feel sorry for Jim Bob. I was just starting out and he was just getting finished. Many years later when I was getting finished, what happened to Jim Bob was easier for me to understand, though even now I don't see it as a tragedy or anything near a tragedy. He married a good woman and they had a big family. One day at the annual company shindig at the Hilltopper I counted four handsome boys and two beautiful girls. Even John thought Jim Bob had been lucky other ways. When you've been lucky in family, for instance, why get beat up over an ambition that never came true? But how can you be sure what is important until you have finished, and you are almost dead?
One day John More and I were sitting in Al's Family Cafe. Then Donald Tohey walked in. Tohey, a truck driver, hauls flat beds for Best Building Supply. He drives the trail, Interstate 80, to Cleveland as many times a week as he can without getting in a wreck. But he worked a long time in the column shed, where John and I work, and he didn't hold it against us. John Lally, who started Best, had made a small fortune pouring cement down metal pipes. The column shed was generally known as slumming it. You didn't have to be very bright, but you had to be physically strong enough to get through it. Tohey and John More had known each other long enough not to be friendly. Tohey was a church going man, and John was not. Their lack of friendliness toward each other was not so much about slumming as about church going, I think, and other stuff I didn't understand.
John told me the story about the day John Lally retired. He thought John's retirement had a lot to do with what happened to Jim Bob. I felt that something bad had happened to Jim Bob. I usually listened to John More. I don’t know why. But I hadn't heard this story.
This is what John More said.
"John Lally might have come in a little early that day. He seemed okay, maybe more grouchy than usual. It was a summer day, and it was starting to get hot. The cement mixer wouldn't start. Leonard cleaned up the spark plug, and he finally got it running, and we started to make the cement. Harold and I were lugging the pails of cement up the ramp, and Jim Bob and Booker were on top of the ramp pouring the mix down the tubes.
"We had strapped up some specials day before, and stood the tubes up beside the ramp, and Jim Bob and Booker were pouring the cement, because John wanted to get them done first. The tubes were twelve footers, so Jim Bob and Booker were pouring from the very top of the ramp. It was a long climb to the top of the ramp. You can get pretty tired, so we were switching off so everybody could take a blow. Jim Bob and Booker were pouring the mix and tamping it down the tubes at the very minute Leonard went over to the fan to cool off his pits from shoveling. So John Lally picked up a shovel. Then he and Leonard were both shoveling. Then all of a sudden John throws down his shovel, and says, 'That's it. I retire. You be boss.' So Leonard was boss. Then John walked out the door of the shed, climbed in his car and left.
"Now, Jim Bob knew what went into the mix, and John Lally was very particular what went into the mix. Jim Bob shouldn't have been up top helping Booker. Leonard should have been up top helping Booker. Then Jim Bob might have ended up boss instead of Leonard. On the other hand, if John Lally hadn't had the shovel to thrown down, he might not have retired at all. You never saw Jim Bob cooling off his pits at the fan. That was before the heart attack, and Jim Bob could keep up with the mix shoveling by himself, easy.
"Nobody would have thought John Lally would ever get done. He never said anything. We all thought Leonard was just temporary, while John went out to lunch. We thought John would die on the job, throw one last bag of cement in the mixer and keel over. He liked to fuss about cars. He had a garage out back of the house, fancy sporty car and a boat. But that's no reason to retire, is it?
"Anybody could see Jim Bob was hurt. The life was draining out of his face. It had been almost twenty years that Jim Bob and John had worked together shoulder to shoulder. Twenty years! It'd be almost midnight and those two would be getting ahead a load of specials. No lights on anywhere the whole block but the column shed, those two working in the hot or the cold. Leonard hadn't worked in the shed more than a year. Anyway, nobody thought John Lally had really retired. Booker shouted to John, 'See you after lunch time.'
"But he didn't come back after lunch time.
"Not that Jim Bob ever complained. He had raised six kids, put his wife through nursing school, paid the bills for twenty years working for John Lally. I figure John must owe Jim Bob something, and you can't talk me out of it. They wiped out the competition together! Tell me, who is making columns any more? Nobody! John and Jim Bob started in that shit box warehouse across the way where they do the retreads now. Jim Bob made more money for John Lally than a dozen Leonards. But here's the thing: what's to love about that shit hole? What's to dream about?
"Anyway, it's Arnold's deal now. I believe Arnold kicked his father out. Arnold was an officer in the Marines. He wants to get into politics. Why should he care about the column shed when Bellini or Maxwell or that guy Tom Stone was calling him from uptown? Arnold has a big city mistress. Ask Jimmy in the mechanic's garage. Jimmy met her the other day. A tire on Arnold's Caddy went flat. Arnold couldn't even change a tire for himself! Arnold is a wheeler-dealer; old John never learned to think that way. In the end it was all money, and Arnold kicked the old man out.
"John Lally? what should he care? I heard he's in Florida starting a boatyard. Arnold couldn't do that, not in a million years. Too hard work.
"So what could Arnold know about his father and the load he was carrying? He couldn't know anything. And neither could Leonard. So you've got the perfect case of the blind leading the blind. They get along fine, and they're perfectly happy as they're sinking fast. Jim Bob couldn't do that; he wouldn't let that happen. What's happening, it must be hard for him to watch. But how could he explain it to Arnold? Arnold would just get mad at him.
"One day Booker jumped up and collared Arnold in the parking lot, and Booker said, 'You can't make Leonard boss in the column shed.' And Arnold said, 'Why not? Leonard, that's who I thought.' Arnold didn't have a clue. That's what Booker said, though I didn't see it.
"Right after what Arnold said in the parking lot got around, Jim Bob had the big heart attack.
"Maybe he would of had the heart attack anyway. Now he's on a special diet, plenty of rest, no heavy lifting. You see the way he is.
"Jim Bob had family. He wanted to show them something. Us drunken bums, how could we understand?
"Leonard almost fired him the other day. Jim Bob was standing around, not feeling good. But Jim Bob went home sick, stayed out a couple of days, and when he came back Leonard wasn't mad any more."
Now Tohey was six foot tall, a sturdy and rugged man. You could tell he didn't think much of what John had to say. So after a snort or two, he started out telling the story his way.
"You're right about John Lally and Jim Bob working together. Back in them frigging days when John was just starting out nobody could have worked with him but Jim Bob. What a hellova man was Jim Bob! He was stronger in just his left arm than I am my entire body. A true black man! Nostrils flared, eyes bright. Never a handsomer man ever lived than him. No bitchin', no bullshit in his soul. Just a loud laughter. Him and John Lally was brothers, I tell you. They ain't money enough in this entire world to pay Jim Bob back. You can't pay him back with money. You pay him back with blood. John Lally must know that. But John Lally don't have any blood, nor does that useless son of his. That's the trouble with this world. No extra blood to pay anybody back with. They throw money at you and expect that to be the end of it.
"You know what I remember? I remember them two fighting. They'd argue then sometimes they'd fight. Jim Bob was damned if he'd say a word untrue. Still in him if you listen. If there was one hundred fifty columns to ship, Jim Bob didn't give a damned if John Lally himself said there was two hundred. It was a good thing John's wife was working in the office. She'd come out, calm them down. Lord knows what went on when they were in there alone nights.
"You want to know what caused Jim Bob to have that heart attack? I'll tell you. It was because he all of a sudden lost his best friend of twenty years. The man walked out without a word. You seen him the other day! John Lally comes up from Florida to visit for the holidays. Jim Bob's standing at one end of the shed, John at the other. Not a word did they speak. That's twenty years for you. And now all that work building that business is just getting pumped out Arnold's yin-yang.
"You can talk about money all you want. That's all you ever talk about anyway, John More. Dreams? Bullshit! It was that friendship Jim Bob lost. He has been a dead man since that day John walked out.
"So that's why he had the heart attack, and you can take it to the bank. Anyway, what the hell do you know, you drunken bum?"
Then Tohey turned toward me and he said, "Why do you hang out with him, Paul Paris? He'll kill you with that shit."
Then Tohey got up and went across the street to play the number.
John took it very badly. He said angrily, "Tohey's a fool. Friendship! What a bunch of crap. That's the big cop out they give you when they don't want you to get what you deserve. Jim Bob wanted to get ahead. But how is there any getting ahead for people like us? Tohey, too! He has been lucky. Something happens, anything, an accident, a sickness and he's down the drain just like the rest of us. Friendship! Now I've heard it all."
It was so hot in Al's, Al's forehead was red and small pale droplets of sweat clung there, but he refused to turn down the heat. The riggers and the junkyard men came in in a riot. Everybody came in and stripped off their coats and rubbed their hands together gleefully. The Bobcat drivers from the waste paper dump came inside from outside, where they had been working under a sky below zero, and the wind howling.
Jim Bob came in. He had probably been chatting with his friend at the wrecker yard. The fellows at the bar made a space for him.
John opened a newspaper and folded the pages back meticulously. While he read he underlined each line with a stubby war-torn fingertip. With my thumbnail I cleared the frost off a spot on the window. In the frozen iron-blue, heart-breaking sky was a pale star. Could that be the whirling hole in the heavens that hope gets sucked into? I was bothered by a foreboding that something similar would happen to me. And what right did I have to expect that it wouldn't?