Copyright (c) 2018 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
A cruel October wind dropped shards of ice as it wandered the streets of Chicago, whispering promises to take those who lingered without shelter. Sean O’Brian left the tiny house, that he and his mother shared with her arduous employer, in a hurry. The only way to get to the Angels of Mercy elementary school without a yardstick beating was to take a short cut. The ever-hungry human vermin that descended on the dirty streets like a nineteen thirty-two version of the Illinois state militia had yet to advance from their shanties, doorways and shipping crates in search of work. He should have a day job helping to put food on the cable-spool they used for a table … but his own angel insisted. He ran.
Sean was worried about his mum. Gone were the days when she would dance about their own kitchen singing “Lift MacCahir og your face, brooding o'er the old disgrace when Black Fitzwilliam stormed your place … and drove you to the fern.” while he and his father stomped their dusty boots and laughed. The good days were mostly before his da was killed in the railroad accident. The company gave his mum a hundred dollars. It wasn’t enough to keep the house for a year. Lately her troubled eyes had sunk far into her pale face, surrounded by cowls of darkness as Mrs. Finch contracted piles of hired-laundry for her to clean, mend and hang in payment for the rent on the cold washroom they lived in. A rusty oil-drum vented above the door with rags and pipe served for heat and cooking. Water was lugged and boiled by bucket loads from the East River; he hoped he’d hauled enough.
Mum was much too thin and courting a persistent fever. Beads of perspiration had appeared on her forehead as she wrapped bread and cheese in old newsprint for his lunch. It was almost their only food but any argument would have weakened her. “I’ll have a bit of soup later,” she told him, pointing to the can boiling on the stove and a thumb sized potato starting to seed. He made her promise she would eat … with lye-soap reddened fingers touching her heart and the other hand gripping his … it would have to do.
“Sauce” Branson slapped Gordano Donelli on the back and pointed as Sean scaled the pile of old truck tires and dropped over the fence. They had a scrawny tabby pinned to the ground and were about to tie Chinese jacky-jumpers, probably stolen from Gin Lou, to its tail with wire. Both lads were years older, but they went to the same school. “Why waste these on just a cat?” Branson smiled.
“Let her go … you bastards!” Sean told them. Donelli stood up he was at least a head taller than Sean. The cap covering his head was pulled down low almost covering his black Italian eyes. His pudgy fingers clutched the tightly wrapped paper-rolls filled with gunpowder and tied together with fuse string.
“Who’s going to make us?” he said, moving toward Sean’s back as his pal struggled to hold down the hissing feline.
“Let the cat go … we’re almost late for school,” Sean said.
Sean saw the muscled arm swinging toward him … and ducked. Donelli wailed as his fist broke the wood slat fence.
Branson let the cat go and charged just as Donelli tackled Sean at the waist.
Branson punched Sean in the eye and then picked up the wrapped bundle he dropped as Donelli began to throw furious punches. “What’s this?” He crinkled his nose as he tore away the paper. He laughed when he saw the hard bread and the bit of cheese. He dropped it and then ground it into the oily dirt with his boot. “These damn micks will eat anything,” he laughed.
“Who’s there?” The night watchman at Jorgen’s Cannery opened the back door holding an oil lantern.
“We’ll finish with you later,” Branson promised. Then both boys ran.
You’re a right mess you are …” the watchman said as he walked toward the bloody child. “You want to stay alive in these cruel streets you’re going to have to learn to fight back!”
“I can’t,” Sean said as he stood brushing himself off. His nose was bleeding and one tooth felt loose. Scraped fingers went automatically to his heart. “I promised my mum.”
It was almost twenty after seven when a still wet Sean walked into the classroom. He had stopped by the river to clean off the blood. Sister Ermine Mason stared with unsympathetic eyes as he sat behind pretty Sally Jennings. “We all know the rules,” the nun said. “In your seats with books open before the bell rings at ten to seven … or there will be penance.”
Branson nudged Donelli and they both laughed as Sean searched in his desk for his pencil. Sean heard a snap and turned as Branson dropped broken bits of wood and lead beside his seat. “I have an extra,” Sally said. She turned and gave him a sharpened stub along with a smile. He could scent heavenly lavender soap coming from her soft blonde curls. Sean could see her tiny teeth marks on the wood. “Thank you,” he whispered.
Sean listened carefully to Sister Mason as she read from a history text and then gave out assignments. His mother paid an enormous price with her health to keep him in this school; he was determined not to let her down. His grades were the highest in the class. Father O’Malley was so impressed with his studies that he even supplied Sean with new notebooks and pencils from time to time.
Almost five hours later, after English, Math and Science, the bell for mid-break rang. The students all grabbed lunch pails and headed for the dining hall. After eating, there would be a good forty-five minutes for outside play. “Not you,” the sister said as she reached for the heavy yard-stick she used to dole out punishment.
Sean was secretly glad as he stood in the corner and bent at the waist. There was a limit to physical pain. Anything short of his own death he was very familiar with. It was better than a fine lass like Sally Jennings … seeing him without food.
Sean knew Branson and Donelli would be waiting for him in the school-yard when classes let out so he wasted precious minutes and then used the back door. He wasn’t afraid of another beating either by them or Sister Mason … he just didn’t have time. Stealing was another of his mother’s rules that he was forbidden to break but without food they were both going to die. Promises guide the living … Regrets follow the dead.
Tonight Amos Chandler’s Fruit and Vegetable Stand would be at the corner of Water Street and Illinois Avenue. Amos kept a ten-gauge Remington shotgun loaded with rock salt under the crates of large red apples that he sold for a nickel each. He hadn’t killed anyone yet, but quite a few of Chicago’s workforce limped the streets with stubs where their fingers or toes used to be and just as hungry as before.
“Yo be late!” the large negro said without looking up as Sean slipped under the horse-drawn wagon and behind the stacked boxes and began to sort the apples, polishing them with a rag and placing them on display.
“I ran into a little trouble.” Sean turned so Amos could see his black eye.
“I don pay boys fo the time dey spends fightin,” Amos said. “Dat fun cost yo a maybe four sents.”
Sean cursed under his breath. At five cents an hour he’d barely make enough for a handful of carrots and a couple of onions. If he wasn’t home by seven his mother would try to unload the laundry truck herself. She wasn’t strong enough and the strain would do her in. He’d have to tell her he ate an apple on the way home.
“Dem spuds needs ta be washed, trimmed and sorted,” Amos stared at him with his good eye. “Don let me catch yo walking home with any peels in yo pockets … ma pigs gots to eat two.”
“Yes Mr. Chandler,” Sean said as he lifted a heavy crate from the wagon. Amos was almost forty-nine - old for any Illinois farmer let alone one as mean and black as roof tar. If it wasn’t for Amos’s horse-kicked leg, that never mended right, Sean wouldn’t have this job.
“Better shake da lead out o yo boots or I’m a half-ta keep back anader nickel,” Amos threatened.
Sean’s arms felt like they were on fire and he was too busy pulling crates off the wagon to wipe the sweat from his eyes but he tried to move faster. “Yes Sir Mr. Chandler,” he said.
“I like dese here Irish niggers,” Amos flashed white teeth as he laughed to himself. “Dey knows who dey master is!”
It was starting to get dark. Sean watched anxiously for the first street-lamp. If Amos hadn’t paid him when it went on … he’d have to go home with nothing. The last customers drove away and Sean took the opportunity to approach the cranky old farmer. “Mr. Chandler I …”
Sean never got a chance to finish. A long back Ford sedan screeched to a stop and suited men climbed from all four doors. An Italian mobster known on the street as Little Joey Espinosa walked toward Amos puffing on a cigar. He pulled it from his mouth and pointed with it. “You can let that nag crap anywhere it wants, but you still got to buy a license to do business in Chicago!”
“I talked to da man at city hall,” Amos stammered. “He say street vendors don’t need no license.”
“You haven’t been talking to the right people,” Little Joey took a bite from one of the apples then tossed it away. “You been in business a week … you owe us a sawbuck.”
“If I owes da money … den I pays it!” Sean knew something was wrong. Mr. Chandler was walking toward the apple crates and Sean knew he kept all his coins in a bag under the radishes. The other men from the car were spreading out in a circle.
Sean wanted to yell a warning but before he could Amos had pulled out the shotgun and was aiming it at Little Joey. “I dig every bunch a carrots, spuds and onions out a the groun and den I plants ‘em under dirt in my cella afor I brings ‘em here,” he said. “Ain’t nobody gonna take what I breaks ma back for … ‘cept for me or my wife … when I is done!”
“I can respect that!” Little Joey spread his arms wide in a gracious gesture. His smile was like the white picket fence surrounding the mayor’s mansion. Sean released his breath.
Then two men struck Amos from behind … so fast all Sean saw was a blur. The next moment Amos lay on the ground a knife blade was stuck in his back. Little Joey picked up the gun and used it to break apart the crudely fashioned vegetable stands. When he finished he broke the gun-stock over poor Chandler’s head. His accent was now a mimic of the dead negro’s. “Somebody ‘gonna have to tell yo wife … yo be done.” A gob of his spit landed in a puddle of blood.
Sean saw one of the men pick up the coin bag from the piles of broken wood and scattered vegetables. They glanced at him but paid him no more mind than if he’d been a fence post. They drove away slowly and had just turned the corner when a police car screeched to a stop. “What did you see?” One of the cops who stood looking down at the body asked.
“I didn’t see anything!” Sean lied.
A fat cop chewing a big wad of gum smiled as he put his arm roughly around him. Sean could smell alcohol. “We better run you downtown just to be sure.”
It was an hour later and total dark when the cop finally let him leave the back seat of the police car and gave him a stick of gum. Sean threw it away. They hadn’t asked a lot of questions and the car had never moved. It was like they were just putting a scare into him and they enjoyed his tears as he told them about his mother. Sean picked up an armload of broken carrots and potatoes off the ground … and then he ran. He could hear raucous laughter behind him. “Stop! Thief!”
------- 6 -------
The laundry truck was half unloaded when Sean got home to the room his mother rented. A furious Ralph Finch stood next to spilled piles of laundry. “Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded as Sean pushed past him.
Mrs. Finch was already pulling the blankets off the filthy bed his dying mother lay in. “They say some vomit just before they go. I won’t have anyone to do the wash now!” The fire in the stove was out and the pile of kindling wood … missing.
Sean almost climbed into the bed with her. She was as hot as a furnace and shaking. “I’m sorry I’m late. I brought vegetables for soup,” he sobbed. “Let me get some water boiling!”
“There be no time for that,” she whispered as she gripped his fingers. She searched his eyes with hers. “You were never anything but the greatest pride ‘o my heart!” He could feel her heart beating erratically like a car engine about to stall. “I’ve only ever loved two men … in my life.”
He started to protest and she put a trembling finger to his lips. Her voice seemed to already belong to a ghost that was floating away.
“Promise your poor mother that you will make this new world give you all that I and your dear da dreamed it would.” His mother gagged as he leaned close. Sean held her frail hand and touched his fingers to his heart. “I promise,” he whispered. She smiled for a moment … and then her eyes stared across a vast ocean to green fields a lifetime away … and she was no more.
TO BE CONTINUED …