Route 17 was a cornfield road that became Court Street inside Kankakee city limits. It passed the limestone Protestant churches and the courthouse with the Union soldier standing guard over the snowy lawn before crossing the brown river over the Court Street Bridge. The current glowed roily against the new bank snow. The clapboard houses and the barber shops turned into snowy fields and Court Street became Route 17 again.
I rode east on Court Street with Doug Leach driving until the blacktop became Route 17 coursing through winter fields towards the Indiana line once you passed the Starlight Drive-In. My dad and I saw Star Wars at the Starlight the summer before my mom left with his buddy Paul Taylor when I was on a Boy Scout camping trip. He remarried Carolyn, a woman cheated by her Vietnam USMC husband. I knew the days of watching Star Wars with my father were dead like last autumn’s leaves. She taught my father to want a pound of flesh over my mother leaving him. She never told him what an old first sergeant would tell me when I confided revenge dreams a few years later: he who seeks revenge better dig two graves, one for the target, and one for you. My father let Carolyn convince him happiness was nice suits and a Dion leather coat with a fox collar. He was once a quiet man who tried to love my borderline mother and his children when he knew the ice was thin.
The mileage sign to the Indiana line was snow crusted as was the ice in the bar ditches. Doug drove my father’s Ford quarter ton furniture truck this repossession Saturday, December 1983. He was the furniture department manager, wore a tie and sleeves, possessed the intensity of a two tour Vietnam combat medic, and drove the truck cursing Rich Krick, the warehouse manager, for calling off work on the December Saturday when rent-to-own repossessions were scheduled. Doug was forced to drive the old Ford east of Kankakee to the townships of Pembroke, Hopkins Park, and Leesville, the hidden parts of the county where African Americans were sold worthless sandy farmland with money they’d earned coming North to Chicago from the rural South during the War to work in the steel mills and munitions factories. Their descendants lived in poverty worse than the Mississippi their grandfathers and fathers left forty years prior. The poor whites were the loudest about leaving them in lantern light at night and drinking iron well-water unless they shit a tax base.
My father saw these people and their welfare checks as an emerging market in a town shedding factories and people by the month. He had to make money for my sister and my child support until we were 18, but he wouldn’t have done this to poor people before mom left him. He would have found a different market. Between mom and Carolyn, there were eight months that we drank apple cider and laughed at MASH and Benny Hill reruns on Friday nights and hunted rabbits in the fields all day Sunday after Mass. There were no women lost in their vanity. Those were the greatest eight months of my life, and walking the river woods and the fields with my father was a dream I would never see again.
Doug smoked Kool 100’s and drank coffee. It was strange seeing him in work clothes, but he didn’t act unfamiliar to them. He handed me the large Styrofoam coffee cup to hold while he down shifted for the turn onto the Hopkins Park blacktop and I kept it from spilling until he upshifted to the fourth gear and we rolled the last country miles to our first stop.
“I told your dad starting a rent-to-own business will be us coming out here and taking back what we just delivered.”
Doug reached for his coffee and I handed him the steaming cup. I lit a cigarette, watched the whited fields pass like the interior of an idiot’s mind.
“Guys like you and my Uncle George did what was expected,” I said.
“University of Vietnam’s diploma has no value in The World, kid. Everybody who dodged it doesn’t want to be reminded of what they did, and everybody who didn’t dodge wonders why they didn’t dodge.”
I feigned the best I have no fucks to give smile that I could conjure. The truth was that I missed watching Benny Hill on Friday nights with my dad. Doug laughed and lit another Kool with a First Cavalry Division Zippo.
“You know I think Nam was the worst decision America made after slavery and killing Indians,” he said.
“You hate the Army and the war,” I said. “You never lie about that.”
“We killed millions of them and never won a thing. I don’t know where your old man gets his ideas about us winning. He told me that we beat them militarily, but military victories meant nothing in Vietnam.”
I was quiet.
Pembroke was sandy and full of pine trees and small truck farms where black dirt was trucked come spring for growing melon and pumpkins. The cold air smelled of pine smoke from the pine knots burned in the homemade furnaces of tar paper shacks and house trailers with roofs sagged from the heavy snows of Illinois winter. The white smoke hung in the woods as if fog. Doug drove slowly on the rutted gravel lanes that twisted through the pines. Cur dogs ran along the sides of the truck jumping at the windows with glinting teeth whenever Doug slowed through turns.
The dog’s barked as if they were shaking something loose. They lunged at the truck with their snouts, teeth showing. They were fearless, a pack of four with scars from fighting raccoons.
“These are Viet Cong dogs,” Doug said.
“The Viet Cong had dogs?” I said.
“The weak, fat dogs ended up getting washed down with rice wine by Viet Cong officers,” Doug laughed. “These dogs were never dinner. They would eat Charlie’s officers. Charlie couldn’t waste a grenade fragging his officers so he put his best dogs on them.”
“How many dogs would they put on a VC officer?” I said.
Doug made like his finger was a hook and put it in his mouth.
“When you going to learn how to smell bullshit?” He said.
“I don’t know. You and my Uncle George get me.”
“George is the real deal. The Marines in 1968 were no joke. He knocked out a smartass bartender at the Web with a punch. George had four inches to get enough force, a long shot, but that Marine did it. The bartender left town afterwards.”
The dogs jumped against the truck because Doug drove slow to stay inside the gravel tire ruts. They threw their bodies at the metal fenders and doors and I heard their loud thumps while the other dogs ran and barked. I saw their tracks in the snow and the half-frozen sand. When we passed a house trailer with sheeted plastic spread across the roof and held down by rocks, an older black man walked towards the lane with an old double-barrel shotgun, four dead rabbits hanging from his belt, and called the dogs until they ran into the woods. Pine smoke twisted from a chimney made of cinder blocks. The man eyed our truck and then eyed the cold morning sky before walking back into the house trailer with the buckshot rabbits bouncing off his hips. He never eyeballed us. His faded denim overhauls were streaked with fresh, dark drips of blood.
“This is like a ville in Vietnam,” Doug said.
“Pembroke doesn’t look anything like Vietnam,” I said.
“The look of a place means nothing,” Doug said. “It is how the place makes you feel.”
“He looked like he was just hunting rabbits. He called his dogs off.”
“They are pimped by Chicago gangs and ignored by the county board. That old man has plenty of reasons to hate you. Charlie looked at you without ‘looking at you’ the same way.”
“Didn’t that piss you off?”
“No,” Doug said. “We were backing a gangster government.”
“We aren’t gangsters.”
“We rent him a TV we know he can’t afford and he spends three months paying 33% before we take it back.”
We pulled the truck in front of a house trailer, our first repossession of many that morning. Three pole-like pines were fallen across the trailer’s roof, the middle tree tallest, but the snow-crusted pines were light and left no dents in the aluminum. Doug rolled down his window and shut down the truck. He stuck his ear out the driver’s window. I opened the door and he grabbed me hard by the shoulder and pulled me back inside.
“Keep the door closed until I tell you to open it,” he said.
Doug let go of my coat.
“You sure there aren’t dogs waiting?”
“I didn’t think.”
“You best correct that.”
Doug took a rock and threw it against a caved aluminum shed. When the clang came, two mixed shepherds with teeth like bayonets came running from the back woods towards the passenger door. I would have been shredded. They could have been the same dogs, but I wasn’t sure.
“Stay alert, stay alive,” Doug said.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“We sit here and hope somebody calls off the dogs,” Doug said. “God this place reminds me of Vietnam. Everybody is thinking about killing you.”
“Will it be like this all day?”
“Why should they make it easy on us?”
“I guess they don’t have a reason.”
“If this was Vietnam,” Doug said, “every woman out here would hump mortar rounds for Charlie all night.”
“Weren’t the Viet Cong the worst?”
“Depends on who stole her rice, shot her one pig, and took her son away to fight.”
The woman opened the trailer door and yelled and clapped her hands. She stood upon steps fashioned from loose cinder blocks. The dogs didn’t quiet and barked with shone teeth. Their breath smoked cold. The woman wore a pink housecoat and an old Navy pea-coat ripped by barbed-wire and flecked with white paint. She yelled and clapped again. The dogs ran off into the pine woods and scrub oak and the woman waved Doug and me to the trailer without looking at us.
“You know the kids will be sitting on the couch and watching cartoons on the TV we are repossessing?” Doug said.
My stomach sank to my ankles.
“We need to do this and didi moi,” Doug said. “You follow me and thank Jesus your old man can’t order you on a Zippo detail.”
“In Vietnam that meant burning down the huts and hooches of a ville because the army thought the people loved Charlie too much. We go inside, we get the stuff. Don’t listen to the crying kids. Just keep up with me and do what the Hell I do.”
“Yeah?” Doug said.
“Yes,” I said.
“You don’t even look at the kids,” Doug said. “That is the trick. You can’t let yourself see one. You clear on that?”
I nodded my head and looked at the woman. I prayed my father didn’t purposely schedule repossessions during Saturday morning cartoons.
“I don’t want you getting in there and freezing because you hear crying kids. Do you read me?”
“If you look at them,” Doug said, “you are finished.”
I kept nodding while he spoke.
“This is soldiering, kid,” Doug said.
Doug and I opened the truck doors and walked towards the trailer door and the thin white smoke from burning pine logs. The theme music from “The Pink Panther” was punctuated by children’s laughter. When Doug and I approached the stoic woman on the steps, I looked at Doug, but he didn’t look back at me. The woman looked hard at nothing. Doug looked so blank that I imagined him putting a Zippo flame to a Vietnamese hut and not even watching the dried palm fronds catch fire before he moved to the next hut. I knew the woman wasn’t going say a word when her kids started crying loud enough to bring many men with dogs and guns out of the pine trees. She looked ready to pounce on her children for crying about the man taking back his TV set. What is the man’s is never yours, children. It will never be yours because nothing that the man sells you ever stops being his.
The cheap Chinese sofas and easy chairs and televisions without known brand names sat in the warehouse filmy from pine smoke. Doug gave me buckets of soapy water and brushes before telling me to scrub the smoke out of the sofas so they could be rented-to-own again by Monday morning. He cleaned up in the back of the warehouse at the double sink the plumbers used, put on his shirt and tie, and left cursing Rich Krick for making him spend the morning in Vietnam.
I scrubbed sofa cushions on the warehouse’s concrete floor. I rinsed the cushions by pressure hose and hung them on hooks to dry on the heated side of the warehouse. I kept the cushions in place by kneeling upon them and scrubbing with a stiff brush and a bucket filled with soap made special for ridding furniture of smoke smells. The suds on the sofa fabric quickly lost their white and turned gray like old concrete. The smoke smell made me cough until my eyes teared. I knelt on soaked carpet samples against the concrete floor and listened to the soapy water run into the drain.
Every stop we made this morning looked exactly like the stop before. There was a wrecked house trailer, a smoke charred house, pine knots burning in a fireplace made from any brick found with ventilation shafts fashioned from old coffee cans and screws and nuts. The little kids watched cartoons from the couch while they ate ALDI frosted flakes and cried like their dog was killed when we took the sofa and television, leaving them on floors lacking rugs with bowls of water and generic frosted flakes catching salty tears. Their mothers remained stoic, as if ancient boulders that turned rain, while their children sobbed without consolation over having lost, lost more, and lost again. I watched Doug look at nothing but where he lifted the sofa to move it to the truck. I mimicked him and we didn’t talk after the first stop until we unloaded the truck an hour ago and he told me to scrub the smoke from the sofas ASAP. Doug was already a sad man and this morning made him sadder. He kicked a chunk of asphalt into a puddle. I scrubbed hard, then harder. I thought about walking around this store someday in Marine blues as if the uniform would erase everything.
The warehouse doors were garage doors with windows. I saw my father coming. Inside four years, he went from my hunting buddy to believing the man with the most toys somehow won big in life. He was my father and I didn’t know him anymore. Before my mother left him and he remarried Carolyn, he told me that toys and fancy clothes were no real indication of success in this world. Those days were like water spilled upon the ground.
His black leather coat was held closed by a black leather belt. The fox fur collar was turned against his neck. He wore a matching black leather driving cap and gloves. His patent leather shoes caught the reflection of the gray sky and he was careful to walk around the puddles of dirty snow water in the alley that separated the store from the warehouse and plumbing shop.
I stood from having knelt on a cushion to keep it still while I scrubbed it with a stiff brush. My knees were wet and red from having knelt on the concrete to scrub smoke residue off the wood of a cheap cabinet television. I wore my uncle’s field jacket and old jeans from Farm and Fleet. I was soaked and sudsy like the cushions and the drains where the smoke-smelling wash water seeped. A space heater glowed orange behind me, set above the wet concrete by three cinder blocks. I stood shivering and blowing cold in the block warehouse while I waited for my father to open the door. He walked like he wanted to kick the broken chunks of asphalt far down the alley, but stopped himself before the chunks destroyed his patent leather shoes. He was a disgusted man. Between wives, I thought we were comrades forever. I understood now that he needed me to survive those first tearful months after my mother left in the night for another man. He wanted to forget what made him cry in the darkness. He never wanted a true comrade, just another woman, and once he found Carolyn, I was a moody teenage product of a marriage that he wanted to forget.
He pointed at the fly of my wet jeans with his gloved finger. I shivered in my soaked long johns, sweatshirt, field jacket, and boots. He stood in his patent leather shoes outside the sudsy water.
“I see you have some air conditioning,” he said.
I looked down at my soaked jeans and beneath the fly was a hole where my wet long underwear shone. I needed the crotch resewn, but used a couple safety pins this morning to keep the hole closed for the day. I owned a few decent pairs I saved for high school, and my mother had to be in the right mood for being a mother. I learned to endure the six different women who lived in one.
“You go on deliveries like that?” He said.
“I had a couple safety pins,” I said. “They must have popped off when I was scrubbing these cushions.”
He kept pointing at my crotch with his long, gloved finger. He never missed an opportunity to kick me.
“That isn’t acceptable if you want to make deliveries for my business,” he said. “You should have had them sewn last night.”
“Mom couldn’t do it last night.”
“Not this morning?”
I said nothing. He knew why. She was drunk with Baker last night and sleeping this morning.
“Your jeans aren’t my problem,” he said. “I send child support. My problem is you delivering for my business with your crotch ripped out. I want a certain impression made by my workers.”
I pointed at the wet cushions and the few cushions left to scrub.
“We were doing repossessions this morning,” I said.
“Carolyn didn’t want me to give you a job here,” he said. “You don’t deserve one the way you treat her. Your grandfather begged me to give you some hours, but you don’t have a future here beyond high school. Your grandfather might have started this place, but I run it now, and you are gone the day you graduate.”
“I need the hours for new jeans. I only have two nice pair.”
“I send money through the court as I was ordered,” he said.
“We were repossessing in Pembroke,” I said. “I doubt anybody noticed.”
In his leather coat, my father was an actor playing a Gestapo agent in the war movies WGN Chicago ran Saturday nights. I was lesser than him for not getting along with his new wife and going to live with the woman who left him.
“I am the boss,” he said. “That’s all you need to know.”
I said nothing. My father and I were done watching Benny Hill reruns together.
“Get this mess cleaned up and go home.”
“I still have three hours.”
“You come back without a crotch, it will be your last day here. I don’t care what your grandfather says.”
“Doug told me to clean until close. I need the hours.”
“I am the boss,” he said. “I say jump, you ask how high.”
“We were repossessing from crying children and mothers too sad to cry. They didn’t notice my pants.”
“You can always stop and put your application in at McDonalds.”
“Grandpa wants me to work here.”
“My father isn’t the boss anymore.”
“He said he started this business after the war for his sons, nephews, and grandsons. He never wanted anybody out of work.”
“I am the boss now. I took a loan to buy my father out. This business is mine because I have to pay the bank every month.”
Grandpa made it through harder times
“Go home,” he said. “You better not come back with patched pants. I send enough for new ones.”
I said nothing. My sister, mother, and Larry Baker had Calvin Klein, and I wore what was on sale at Farm and Fleet. I decided to suck this up like Uncle George and Doug Leach did Vietnam.
“You hear me?”
My father gritted his teeth and showed them like dog’s do. I looked at his face reflected in a puddle. I didn’t know if his new face should make me laugh or cry.
“You hear me?” He said.
“Yes,” I said.
“What did you hear?”
“I heard no patched pants because it doesn’t fit the image you want for Home Appliance when we are repossessing cheap TV’s from poor people.”
“You better remember who butters your bread,” he said.
His teeth clenched harder. His lips raised above his gum line. This guy hated me. I shoved my fists into my pockets and waited for him to finish.
“I don’t know if I can have new jeans by Monday,” I said.
“Then don’t come here after school.”
“I only have a few nice pair to wear to school, then these.”
“Now you have one nice pair for school,” he said. “I would think that way if I wanted to keep a job.”
“I am your son.”
“I sign the check the court ordered me to send.”
My father was already walking away. His patent leather shoes fell hard on the asphalt and never lost their shine. I imagined the kazoo theme song from the Benny Hill Show and our laughter at the dirty old man skits where the women always played Benny for a fool. My dad and I laughed big laughs. We laughed like we would never stop laughing together.
The afternoon was damp and cold and the gray clouds dropped close to the Methodist church steeple down Hickory Street. The snow fell and the northeast wind drifted the snow on the hoods of the Fords parked in the driveways. I wanted to walk the five miles to my house with mom and Baker, but I was starting to get cold from the inside. I’d rather walk home than hear my father’s tough love if I asked him for a ride. My grandfather and grandmother lived a block away from the business they started and left to their oldest son. I was wet and cold and the crotch was ripped out of my jeans. I walked that way and hoped they were home.
My grandfather’s garage door was closed but light shot from the corners into afternoon darkness like laser beams. The damp wind blew through the hole in my crotch. One of the plumbers picked me up Saturday mornings and drove me home after work, but he was on a job with four hours left, so seeing my grandpa and Uncle Art’s cars made me smile because they would laugh at Benny Hill if they ever saw an episode.
My grandfather was laughing with his brother inside the garage. They started the business in late 1946 when all their future employees, the plumbers and furnace installers, came home from the War chain smoking Camels and wary of the peace they fought to give the world. These guys endured pinto bean and johnnycake childhoods in the 1930’s before World War Two taught them to see around corners. My grandfather worked the munitions factory in Joliet making TNT during the War and survived 22 line explosions. He begged for service in Europe or the Pacific rather than working the TNT lines in Joliet, Illinois. The draft board refused his requests and claimed he was too valuable for the war effort, but my grandfather knew he was the lone survivor with enough experience to supervise shifts. All the potential foremen were vaporized except my grandfather who truly wanted to take his chances fighting Germans and Japanese he could see. My Uncle Art served with the 745th Tank Battalion, First Infantry Division, from Normandy through VE Day where his unit ended the war north of Prague. Uncle Art picked up a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor, and carried an accordion in his Sherman tank he found in a stone Norman barn throughout the entire war, only to have it stolen when he returned to Kankakee County Christmas 1945 and the family went together to Christmas Eve service for the first time since 1941.
The door off the garage opened and closed before the screen door opened and latched closed an instant later. Uncle Art was smiling at me in the snow while the flakes stuck to his black wool cap. The snow fell heavier as the temperature rose and the wind dropped. My eyes felt hot, like I was crying without knowing it, and I hoped Uncle Art saw no tears. He was fighting SS Panzers with his Sherman tank in the shadowy Norman hedgerows when he was eighteen months older than me. I told myself there was nothing to cry about.
“You waiting until you are blue?” Uncle Art said. “Is there some fad where you kids try to change flesh tones?”
My field jacket was glazed like a donut.
“That’s crazy, Uncle Art.”
“I brought four kids through the Sixties,” he said.
He gave me his dry-as-gravel smile and shook my hand.
“It’s not Battle of the Bulge cold, Uncle Art,” I said. “I’ll be alright.”
“There’s no future standing wet out here, Danny,” Uncle Art said.
“Why aren’t you working?”
“I got sent home.”
“You get into a fight with Gary?”
“My crotch ripped out of jeans and I couldn’t get them sewn at home,” I said. “I used safety pins to get me through the day, but they popped out, and my dad told me to go home until I had better.”
Uncle Art nodded his head, started to say something, but looked at the low sky licking chimneys and steeples.
“I knew him as a boy, “ Uncle Art said.
When I was little, Uncle Art kept a suitcase full of photos from June 1944 to May 1945, and he took them out and told his stories as many times as I wanted to hear them.
“Are my grandmother and grandfather home?”
“Jerry’s tinkering with his ’36 Ford and Marie is in the house.
I said nothing and smiled.
“Your grandpa and I would have starved if we didn’t learn how to forgive. But after the war, we knew the difference between hot air and explosions, so angry words never meant a thing to me. I got wounded from shrapnel, not words.”
I smiled wider and so did Uncle Art.
“Good luck, Danny. There isn’t much you can do but figure out how to fly away.”
“Thanks, Uncle Art.”
“You’re a good boy. Not many will enlist for what you are enlisting to do. You got a deep love in you.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Uncle Art usually communicated by the things he didn’t say. I felt like he was giving me his Bronze Star with V device for valor.
“Some men think they are the reason they have success,” Uncle Art said. “You can’t argue with a guy born on third base who believes he hit a triple.”
“I hope you do. Now go get warm and help my big brother.”
My grandfather was wiping the grease from his hands with mechanics’ waterless soap before going inside to use Lava soap and a scrub brush. His prized 1936 Ford sat on four jacks and the oil pan was in pieces on his workbench. He restored old cars, drove neighbor kids in parades, and sold the cars and donated He was listening to “Stardust” on the radio, singing off key, then turned the old radio down when he saw me standing frozen and crotchless in his heated garage. He forced a smile, as always, even though he knew his son was taking his family to Hell.
“You fall in Soldier’s Creek and think the cold wind was a towel?”
“My dad sent me home for having the crotch ripped out of my jeans. See. I couldn’t get them sewn last night so I tried using safety pins but they popped out.”
“You couldn’t just pin your crotch back up and go to work. We didn’t worry about things.”
“He said he didn’t want me representing him on deliveries. All we did is go repossess rent-to-own TV’s and sofas in Pembroke.”
“How’d you get so wet?”
“I was scrubbing the repossessed sofas and TVs clean. They heat their trailers with pine knots and you know pine smoke leaves a film.
“Pine will do that.”
“I can’t make him happy.”
“I begged him to give you the job you have,” my grandpa said. “He said giving you a job was going to ruin his happy home life. What else do you want me to do?”
“I couldn’t stay at that cleaning service. You know Tom and Ruby. They both drink hard and a bank and two diners we cleaned burned down within hours of us cleaning them. You ever get questioned by cops who think you are a firebug?”
“There’s nothing I can really do,” he said.
My grandfather’s eyes were my father and mine eyes, light brown with a faint hue of green. We met eyes for a long minute
“I blame it all on to Carolyn.”
“It’s not all her.”
“He’s my son.”
“My face makes him remember a marriage he regretted.”
“Remember the Ten Commandments. You are not honoring your father.”
“You cannot honor a man that hates you.”
My grandpa was quiet and worked the waterless soap into his hands until the grease only shone in the lines of his palms and knuckles. His garage was full of tools and half used cans of car paint and tanks for his welding torch and carpet samples strewn under his 1936 Ford Rag Top Sedan for when he lay under his car to work. He surveyed all of it, looked at me, then back at his hands. He spread his fingers and showed me his open palms.
“You see how I use my kidney,” he said, pointing to his head. “I get off the heavy grease with the stuff I bought from a guy at a car show before I use Lava soap and a scrub brush without making a mess in grandma’s kitchen. That’s smart thinking. You got to learn to work smarter, not harder. Grandma and I have Quadrille Club tonight and you can’t show up to a dance with greasy hands. Girls don’t like dirty hands.”
“I got to get home, grandpa.”
“You aren’t walking?”
“I am warm now. It’s only five miles. I will walk a lot more than five miles in the marines.”
“You haven’t got that idea out of your head?”
“I got to get home.”
“I’ll give you a ride.”
“I better get used to walking cold and alone.”
“I am giving you a ride. Go say hello to grandma, tell her you need a ride home from the store, and get back out here. Don’t tell her what happened today because she will ask questions all night that I cannot answer. We don’t have power over him like he is a little boy. This might be what it is going to be like in life.”
We looked at each other for a long minute. I nodded. Grandpa’s hazel eyes were somewhere between tears and genuine anger and they spoke of the sadness we both silently fought.