This is part of a chapter from my new novel Jimmy Freeman. To see the rest of the chapter, go here.
They left the Dover Street work-a-day together. A half-dozen ragged men. They were being sent out to do scab work. Sullivan Square printing was on strike. They knew that. About the same time as these men were changing to the orange line for the ride up to Sullivan Square station, there was a kid, Jimmy, a baby who didn't know anything, skipping down the steps into the subway at Park Street. He stood on the orange line platform waiting for the train to Sullivan. Jimmy figured he'd be a little early, and he'd wait beside the elevated station at Sullivan and run across the Dover Street guys, then they could all go in to work together. But, it just so happened he met up with them at Park. As the train was rolling in, the man they called Alley spotted him standing on the platform. "Oh no. There's the kid. Jimmy. Bet he's goin' with us." Alley and Gene laughed, "Oh no," they said. Alley ran to the car door and stuck his hoary black head out and shouted for him. Jimmy dashed the short way to the door and jumped inside the car.
"What you doin' working out of Jobs?" Alley said. "You'll never get anywhere working out of Jobs. We been working out of Dover lately. Manpower is down."
"It's an easier walk from where I live, is all," Jimmy said.
So everybody was doing good but the men were not happy about scabbing. Something about the kid, though. Wasn't he a kid though? He was constantly hanging around snooping, his weird black eyes studying everything. Now the men had to put up with him, too, besides the scabbing. Okay to run into him though. What was the kid doing?
"Oh, studyin on Carl Marx at the library," he says.
Oh God. Nobody wanted anything to do with him. He was smiling and happy as if he was half drunk. They shook their heads knowingly. They didn't think the kid was long for this world. He was too damned skinny, for one. Karl Marx for another.
Now Alley was good at taking directions. The men depended on him to lead them straight. Jimmy did too; he fit right in under Alley. Alley had been a Marine. He had been in Korea and got discharged in '64, and he was trying to find a new way. He had been a Marine for twenty years, so he didn't have to work but he worked because he wanted to. He was too young to sit around and do nothing. According to Alley the Marines were some bunch, a team, and he couldn't think of anything happening while he was in, living that life, that he was ashamed of. "Tell me that happens every day. You're not happy. Why should you be," Alley liked to say to Jimmy, or anybody else who would listen. "But you get out of bootcamp and them boys call you a Marine, and you will be happy." Alley missed the Marines; but he didn't want to spend the rest of his life in a bar. But he didn't know where he wanted to spend the rest of his life. "In my day," Alley said. "That," he tapped the center of his chest with a fist, "was a fightin machine."
The other guy, Gene, had been a school teacher. He took a leave for a year but he didn't know why. He didn't try to explain it to anybody. It wasn't the drinking. Sometimes he stood for a long time on a street corner wondering. Maybe he was sick of being a school teacher. He wasn't sick of the kids. He didn't know what he was sick of. Lots of people thought he was just a drunk wasting his life.
Alley, Gene and the crazy kid, Jimmy, had often gone on jobs together. Neither Gene nor Alley wanted to see the kid get hurt, so they prepared the way, in a manner of speaking, and quietly improved his chances. Especially at the carpet cleaners where one of the delivery drivers, a big black dude, was extremely impatient with that sort of thing. They were afraid crazy kid would get beat up, and they didn't want that. But the other two drivers at the carpet cleaners thought Jimmy was funny. What the hell, he pitched in, was careful about moving the furniture, and so they put up with the other stuff. Jimmy didn't realize that some of the stuff he did was kind of weird.
Gee, wasn't he a little weird, though? Yesterday, Juan thought so, and today Alley thought so. One time at the carpet place he jumped out of the truck while it was still moving, of course, which he did often, and he did this waddle thing with stiff legs, a waddle jump thing, and he waddled up to this old lady to help her cross the street, Boylston, it was. She didn't know what had happened, she looked startled but Jimmy calmed her down, and soon she was smiling--you couldn't help but smiling--and he was directing traffic as they crossed the street. Stuff like that--all the time. And he carried on about love and beauty. Weird stuff. Time for him to become a man. People put up with you acting like a boy only just so long. But nobody wanted to see something bad happen to him.
But they weren't going to the carpet cleaners on this day. They wished they were. They were going out to Sullivan Printing as scabs. Sullivan Printing was on strike. It had been in all the papers. Alley and Gene knew they'd have to bust through the picket line. Maybe the others didn't know what that meant. Maybe they did know. But the men were on edge. Even the kid knew what was going on. But he was fluttering through life like an angel. Poor lucky Jimmy, thought Alley and Gene.
Jimmy thought a lot of Alley and Gene and he liked to keep track of their doings. They had become friendly in the last few weeks that they had been sent out on jobs together. They got paid every day and after work they often went to the bar to cash their checks and they sat drinking together. They tended to sit and wonder about why they felt like they should work, why they felt like they should do anything.
"I don't have to work," Alley said. "But I work anyway."
"I don't know why I work," Gene said. "I already paid the landlady for this week. I've got fifty dollars saved up."
"Wha'cha workin for? That's better than most. Rich people might not have fifty dollars saved up. They're rich because they owe everybody. I sometimes feel sorry for them. I do things for them for free, I feel so sorry for them."
"Dunno," Gene said. "I got something to figure out, and I can't figure it out just sitting."
"Dunno." Gene shrugged. "If I knew I'd figure it out."
"Me, I got the Marines. I liked the Marines but 20 years is enough. You belong to something, they give you plenty to do. And not much figuring. Join the Marines!"
"Yeah, but now you don't know what you're gonna do, so you're stuck with the figuring that you didn't do before."
"You're kidding me." Alley laughed. Alley noted that Gene was often very scientific.
Jimmy's eyes and ears sucked up this information like a magnet. He loved to hang around with them and hear what they were thinking about. He was sure that he'd use it all someday for one reason or another. They sure made it clear what happened when you let drink get the better of you. Or they might shoo him away like a pest.
Alley and Gene talked on this subject for a long time. How do you figure something out you don't know exactly what it is? But you know you can't figure it out just sitting.
And as Alley and Gene headed out to be scabs, they were really thinking.
"What difference does it make?" Gene wondered, "whether we are scabs or not?"
"I dunno," says Alley, "but it does."
"Make money. I gotta pay the landlady again."
"What about the fifty dollars?" Alley said.
"Ah hell, it's just money in case I don't want to work any more for two weeks."
It may seem laughable to some people, but not to Jimmy, the orphan. He had never had it explained to him why anyone who had plenty of money should work so hard to make more.
Alley had been married for a long time, he was still married, though his kids were all grown up and he did not live with his wife right now. He gave her money from his Marine's pension. He lived on money from the work-a-day and he did garage work and he liked to work with the horses at the Downs. His wife was not even mad at him.
Gene was married, too. His wife was a principal in Medford grade school system. She was fine without him. But the two boys were still teenagers, and that was a humiliation to Gene, that he was not being a father to them. He had not been able to explain to his wife anything. He had just gone away without explaining. All during his life he had gone on long visits in the big woods. This way why Jimmy related to Gene especially. When he had loved his wife and worried about his boys becoming worthy adults, they sometimes went into the woods together. And then the big woods got too hard so he moved to Boston. He was fine with both places, but he couldn't be both places at once. He thought his wife was way too high for him, he thought of her differently now than he used to, and he lost touch with her and so they moved apart. He didn't know what happened, it was puzzling; Gene just ceased to want to live the way his wife wanted to live. He remembered being ambitious, but somehow he got lost. What was the good thinking about it? But he couldn't stop thinking about it. Even his sons did not seem like his sons. You never heard a peep from them and they studied in school and got A's all the time. He felt more real to himself when he was with this weird bunch of bums in Beantown, Dover Street, USA, nothing and nowhere. Young Jimmy boy included.
Alley missed his Marines, he shoulda carried on for another ten, just waiting for another war which was brewing up in Vietnam they say, where men, some of them Marines, was the rumor, were already fightin and dying. Fighting and dying. Alley talked about boot camp all the time even with crazy kid. Once the drill team got their hands on him, they'd straighten him right out. Alley and Gene felt very protective of Jimmy. There he was hustling a young girl on the train. They stayed a long way away, but it was kind of funny. Nobody knew where he came from. Ah, it was a struggle, life. And now they were heading to bust through a picket line.
"I don't like this," Gene said.
"You kidding. I wish I could be like him." Alley nodded toward Jimmy, who was too busy being a boy to think about what was about to transpire.