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The Drinking Room (Part I)
(An Account out of Donkeyland)
Part one of two
Jerry Hino shuffled the cards on the kitchen table, spread them out to make sure all fifty-two where there, over old scared brown varnished table. Betty was cooking chili for her seven and his seven children, in one huge pot. The kids were outside playing. Jerry fanned himself, cold as it was, he was heavy and sweated easily, his heavy stomach flapped over his belt, his shirt thin, his face erupted into brightness; it was a heavy and old man’s face, at thirty-four years old. The stove made the kitchen warmer for a Minnesota winter, close by. His crouching shadow seemed to climb the wall. His moist hazel eyes blinked at the four cases of bottled beer he and his brother, and Chick Evens had bought over by the window where the cold air seeped under the windowpane-keeping it a tinge chilled; Jerry Hino, and Chick Evens had pitched-in, each five dollars and Jim ten-dollars, and Jerry Spiegelberg, the giant of the group at six-foot six, put in nothing, big as an ox and dumber than one. Betty, his wife made popcorn, and everyone sat around the table munching, mechanically, as Jerry looked for a bottle opener, whereupon finding one, he opened four beers, Hamm’s; He took his first gulp, said:
“That’s better,” looking at Evens.
Jerry Spiegelberg, also known as Ace-or Big Bopper-the neighborhood booze buyer for underage drinkers, thirty-one years old, straight hair, a few years younger than Jerry Hino, face was seemingly disfigured, sucked-in cheeks, no teeth, just gums showing, tiny eyeballs like watermelon seeds, within those huge sockets, shaped like cylinders, decided to roll a cigarette, he had stopped smoking for awhile-or had slowed down his smoking anyhow, and now was aimlessly trying to put the tobacco into the paper with those big hands of his, and saying, “By rolling the cigarettes, instead of buying a pack, I smoke less.” Although everyone knew he was always broke, and the real reason was he couldn’t afford them, and everyone was getting tired of supplying him with free cigarettes.
“What should we play today?” asked Jerry Hino.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” said his brother Jim, and Evens smirked and that was an ‘I don’t care, either way…’ and Ace gave a big smile that went from ear to ear-like a donkey, meaning ‘what do I care, I got free beer, and maybe with a little pity, some free cigarettes.’
Ace now put his cigarette in his mouth, looked for a match on the table, checking his jacket pockets at the same time.
“Here,” said Chick Evens, handing him his lighter.
“Never mind, I got some,” and he pulled out a matchbook, and lit his cigarette, and half the cigarette went up in flames, to ashes, it was so poorly packed.
“Select a card,” said Jerry to Jim. And he did, and it was the Three of Hearts. “Okay,” said Jerry, “Should we play Hearts, first?”
It was the Sixth of November, gloomy and cold out of doors (1966).
Jerry Hino, Jim and Chick Evens all lit up cigarettes, Evens passing the flame of his lighter to and fro, Betty watched the guys attentively as she worked around them, taking up a piece of this and that, making the homemade chili over a slow fire, while they all smoked and drank, it was like this per near three times a week, and sometimes daily, especially around holidays or weekends.
“Ah, yes,” said Ace, smelling the chili, smacking his lips, as if preparing to gobble a bowl full as soon as Betty had it ready.
“Turn on WDGY radio,” said Jim, “Listen to some Rock & Roll?” And Betty walked over to the side window where the beer cases were stacked, one on top of the other, two stacks, in back of Jim, and turned it on; Jack Scott was singing.
“What age is Nancy now,” asked Evens, he had seen her outside talking to a car full of boys, and told them to move on; that she was too young for them.
“Thirteen,” said Betty.
“You best talk to her, guys are stopping and checking her out, she shouldn’t be walking up to the cars like she does, and she’s developing.”
“Sure, but I can’t keep up with all of them, and it’s worse when you guys get together and drink all day and night, but I don’t mind it, I mean.”
The kitchen fell silent, and Jerry looked at Betty unsympathetically. Someone opened the door, and I think Betty was happy for that, Jerry was about to get up and leave, it was Nancy.
“Hello guys, hi Chick!” she said with a smile.
“What are you doing out there, outside?” Betty questioned. Advancing to her mother, she smelled the chili, and took a spoonful, with her slender little hand, and like little drops of rain, let it fall onto her tongue,
“Flirting, or at least trying to flirt…” she chuckled “and my hero came to my rescue,” Betty shook her head, left the kitchen, nearly stumbling about to get out of the crowd, around the chaired-in room, to a more denuded room.
“Is that your Ford out there?” asked Nancy to Chick.
“The red and white yaw, it’s a ’57, I have to sandblast the damn sparkplugs every week and put in a quart of oil in her, but it looks and runs okay I guess, been for Ron Saxton Ford, get to work on the car free, or at least free sparkplugs,” he said with a half smile and chuckle. He had been working for Swifts Meats, with his mother out in South St. Paul, but had come to work so often, too often late with hangovers, they asked him to leave, in a polite way.
“Take me for a ride in it, will you, I mean later?” she asked.
“How can I, I’m drinking and…where’s the can opener,” asked Evens, trying to avoid her question; she was cute, and slim, and nice looking, with auburn hair, and a few freckles, but he dare not, plus, he knew she was just a kid, and didn’t want to spoil her, nor tease her.
“I’ll wait,” she said. Then she pulled up a stool and sat at the edge of the table, by Evens; and began to swing her legs.
“Now leave the guys to their drinking,” said Betty, and get on in here and help me with some cleaning and ironing, the doorway is all muddy and wet from everyone coming in and out, sweep out the slush please.” And Nancy obeyed her mother.
Bill Kapuan knocked at the door, he was married to Bubbles’ sister, Judy-they had known each other since they were kids Judy being a year older than Bill, and Bill being a year older than Evens; Nancy let him in, he sat down on the cases of beer and looked fixedly at the other bottles on the table, “Open a bottle for yourself,” said Jerry. He had just gotten back from the Vietnam War. He was silent for a moment, the reason being, he was sufficient in himself, and he really didn’t have anything to say; other than that he considered himself not quite in the group, although married and knowing everyone quite well-thus conservative.
“I was thinking to say” said Jim “I bet Terry your brother will be going in and over to that Asian war soon?” turning about looking at Bill ((and right he was it would be a year or so, and off Terry would go)(it had been rumored while Bill was gone, Terry was playing around with Judy, they both looked so near alike, it perhaps was hard for Judy to avoid a closer relationship: but rumors are just rumors, are they not)).
“Yaw, that Johnson is one son of a bitch, sending over 500,000-soldiers-drafting like crazy,” said Jerry; Kennedy had only sent 34,000-troops over to South Vietnam, and was going to stop the war before he was assassinated, and then Johnson replaced him, it would seem he might have been in on a plot, so it appeared, at least appeared to the onlooker, if you looked at it business wise, because it kept the American Industry busy-busy like the fireworks on the 4th of July.”
“I think Jack Tachney will be going in shortly too, the whole damn neighborhood, will end up there…” said Evens, in a near whisper.
“You too, Chick…” said Jim, “they’ll get you, you’re a candidate since you got that divorce, from what’s her name…?”
“Barb. Yaw I suppose. I got married before the cut off date 1965, a year ago, but once the divorce is finalized I’ll get it, matter of fact, I got a letter in the mail, and it asked me to respond to it, but what good does it do, Barb will get what she wants, it reads: ‘Mental Cruelty,’ as if I drove her crazy, and here she is out with every Tom, Dick and Harry on the East Side in the bars, matter of fact, she had a boyfriend when we were living together-oh well, what can you say. I saw him running out and down the back stairway one evening when I came home from my karate class, and the next day I told her to leave, and she wouldn’t and I per near threw her down the stairs. I guess I was going a little too far with that. I told her she could come back and take the house hold things I only wanted my clothes. Then a few weeks later I tried to get her to come back one night, and she asked me to trop her off at a bar, she evidently had a date with that fellow.”
“That didn’t last long,” said Bill.
“Fifteen months, per near to the day…” said Chick.
“I’d knock the guy’s brains out,” said Jim.
“She’ll probably marry the joker, I saw him in a bar and he was bragging when he saw me he was going to kick the shit out of me, I asked him right then and there at ‘Switzer’s Bar’ let’s go, and he backed down and Barb was hiding in a group of three guys or more, from me as if I cared, I just walked by them all, on the second floor and into the dance area. Later on I went downstairs at the side bar and a guy comes up to me says, ‘Is Barb your wife?’ I said, ‘Ex wife! Why?’ and he said, ‘She’s a damn whore!’ and I said, ‘That doesn’t surprise me.’ I think he wanted to fight, but I needed a better reason than that.”(And in time that fellow she had been dating, she’d marry, and divorce also, after fifteen-years of marriage.)
“Listen up,” said Ace, “we playing cards or talking?”
“Here’s this chap comes to join us, a war hero, and all you got to say is, ‘Listen up,’ fine friend you are Big Bopper,” said Jim.
“Yaw, Bill’s a man of the world now!” added Jerry.
“How many did you kill over there?” asked Ace. “Do you GI’s get to drink a lot?” he added.
“That’s the way it begins, you shoot at what moves, and you kill someone and you don’t really know because you don’t go looking for who you killed, you don’t want to get wedged in, and you don’t really want to know; then when you get back to home base you drink like a fish to forget the day, and who you killed and didn’t know you killed because you didn’t go to look at his face, or her face, or maybe a kid’s face.”
“Is it true half the Army over there’s on drugs?” ask Ace.
“Open two more bottles, Bill if you don’t mind, one for me and one for Chick,” asked Jerry.
Bill took the bottles from the cases he was sitting on put them onto the table in front of Jim, then he sat back down again.
“Well, Ace everyone over there is on something,” said Bill, “what I mean is we have our share of dopers, or drug addicts, there, but we all respect one another,” he said in a deep voice. “Our side, the drinkers…we just don’t usually hang around with them, unless we have to, unless one we bump into each other; or go out on patrol with one another.”
“Right are you old friend,” said Jerry, interrupting, knowing it was starting to get hard for Bill to talk about the war. “That’s the way he treated them Ace, now let’s pick a card, here!” He showed him the back of some cards to pick, “Pick one of them. Anyhow Bill, you’re back, I’ll say that for you, you made it back and that’s what counts. Now you got to forget the war and let bygones be bygones, I admire a man in uniform.”
“I hear Chick you’ve been teaching Bill karate?” asked Jim.
“We practice in his backyard now and then,” said Chick.
“I wonder if you can beat me in a fight,” said Jim, with pondering eyes.
“Now let’s not get into that,” said Jerry. “We get a few drinks in us and we want to test everyone out, we’re all friends here.”
Jim hesitated a little longer with that thought, pondering, “I’m just kidding, I get a little loose with my tongue when I drink,” nodding his head to his brother as if to say, all is okay.
“Well that’s the way a fights begin,” says Jerry, “we start bragging and put the other guy in the corner, who were good friends between ourselves and we end up enemies.”
To change the subject, Jerry asked Evens, “Your brother still got that 1940 Ford, you know with the supped up engine?”
“No, he got rid of that a while ago, always working on it, and burning the streets up with rubber, buying new tires, and blowing out this and that, you know what I mean.”
Then Jerry and Jim drank down half a bottle of beer each simultaneously, and asked Bill for another.
“Hay…” said Jerry leaning his forearm on the table, looking at Ace:
“Have they paid you yet?”
He had worked a week as a day labor the week before.
“Not yet,” said Ace. “I hope to God they’ll pay me soon, and I’ll buy the beer then!”
Jim and Jerry both laughed.
“O, hell, you buy, that’ll be Christmas,” Jerry said, “What do you think Chick?” sarcastically.
“I think if he has it he will, if he doesn’t spend it first!” Ace looked scornfully at Evens if not a tinge guilty, “You guys stop making fun of me!”
“It’s because you’re a working man now,” said Jim.
“He’s not used to a good honest day’s work,” said Jerry.
“Pass me my cards,” asked Ace.
“I think your right Chick, we got to take him down to pick up his check tomorrow and bring him back here,” said Jerry, “or we’ll never see a dime of that check spent on beer for us!”
“You still working at the battery company, Jim?” questioned Evens.
“Of course, night and day, trying to save up $100,000-dollars to retire,” Jerry had worked there also, but had been laid off.
“How’s that,” said Chick.
“I work all the overtime I can get, all the weekends I can get, I got $60,000-dollars now, and I’ll get it.”
“By golly, you might,” said Jerry, “if you don’t kill yourself first.”
“I was just wondering,” replied Evens, “if they were doing any hiring?”
“No, they keep lying off all the time, and expecting us to pick up the slack,” said Jim. Adding, “How many jobs have you had, every time I see you, you’ve got a new job, lost a job or looking for a job, I think you’re a roustabout if anything!”
“Let me count,” said Evens, “I’m nineteen, and I think I’ve had a job for every year of my life, perhaps close to twenty if not more.”
(Unfortunately, it would be in a few more years that Jim would die of a hear attack, working all those days, nights and overtime hours…!)
The four fell silent and looked at their cards, putting all the hearts together, asking for new cards, no one displaying their hands yet.
Jim took off his hat, he was five years younger than his brother, but was losing his hair fast; his wife Bubbles was at work, everyone envied Jim for marrying her, she was pretty and colorful as a peacock, an outgoing personality-and he more often than not, bragged her nice looks and shapely body up to those around him, as if wanting them to comment only to get angry if not defensive, perhaps testing to see if someone was interested in her.
Then a bustling younger sister by two years, of Nancy’s age, came in sniffling from the cold, her nose red, cheeks rosy, and with cold ears and she slammed the door, rubbing her hands as if she was trying to produce a spark.
“No more playing, go get your sisters and brothers you’ll all eat in the living room.”
“Sit down Chick,” said Jerry, she’s going to serve them in the other room; Ace, get up and stir the chili.”
Ace stood up, grabbed the giant wooden spoon laying on the stove, the one Betty was using, and stirred it in a circular motion, smelling it and making faces, and bringing a spoonful to his mouth, and tasting it: Jerry shook his head to the right and left, and Ace chuckled as if he was being sneaky and got away with it. Put the spoon back down and his finger across his lips as if to say: Sh…sh! Don’t say a word to Betty. And had he, perhaps he would have been thrown out of the house, or at least, scorned in front of the group by Betty.
“Well how do you all stand?” questioned Jerry.
“Are you calling the game, you got all hearts?” said Jim.
“I don’t but I think I got enough to show you all up.”
“Well do you want to bet?” asked Jim.
“Why so?” questioned Jerry.
“You are asking us to show our hands, I think I’ll be alright, I don’t have all hearts but I got some high ones, maybe beat you do you want to bet?”
Jerry began to snuffle and rub his hands over one another, fast.
“It’s no go, I don’t want to bet, and it is just for fun!” Shaking his head, still thinking he has the best hand and wanting to see Jim’s.
“Well,” said Jim, “If you don’t want to bet, and you don’t have a full hand of hearts, by my rules we keep playing until someone does.”
“O, he’s tricky as they make ’em, Chick, I bet he hasn’t got a thing-“
“In a pig’s eye,” said Jim, adding, “spend a lot of money and bet then,” Jim, reaching for a beer, seeing everyone else was out, and pulling up four beers.
“Is that a fact,” said Jerry.
Betty returned and brought out several bowls from the cupboard, one by one, filled them with chili for the kids, lumps of chili in each bowel, and Ace looked with watering eyes, as she carried two of them in at a time to the other room. When she returned after the third trip, she saw Ace looking at her pitifully.
“I do not expect to feed you Ace or anyone but my family today, unless there is a lot leftover, and I won’t know until all the kids get fed and full, to include me and my husband.” Then she looked at Jerry, “I can’t help it,” said Betty.
“I didn’t say a word,” responded Jerry, knowing her often, perhaps too often fed his guests.
Jim laughed, showing himself his cards, made ready to show them to all.
Betty went to the other room slowly with the whole pot of chili to refill their bowls, just as the door was opening, and two more children came in.
Jerry was about to put a morsel of popcorn into his mouth and stopped, his eyes fixed themselves on the window behind Bill, Bill propped against the windowpane-the cool air seeping up his back, he replaced the morsel of corn back onto his plate, attentively. Then he drank a gulp of beer, “Here comes Doug Swartz,” said Jerry, twenty-three years old. He pushed his beer to the side to get a better look he was alone. Produced a cold look, “He’s your buddy, Ace, he’s not drinking any of our beer unless he wants to buy some, or pitch in to buy a case! He’s like you, a sponge.”
Doug came around now and then, mostly looking for Ace but was a friend of all, but more an acquaintance to Jerry
he walked along quickly as if likened to a duck-slightly robust, and muscle-bound, short hair, an inch or two taller than Chick Evens, talking to himself, striking the ground regularly with a rub of his feet like a bull, just turned twenty-three years old, saw that there was a gathering in Jerry Hino’s house, waved to Ace, he was facing the window; slackened his pace. Somewhat peeping in as he walked by to the front door, knocked and was let in, joined the others.
Evidence showed that he was a bit intoxicated himself, he pulled out a bottle of whiskey-a pint, put it on the table, “Help yourself,” he said, and Jerry smiled, took a shot with a shot glass, Betty had provided, and Jim pulled out a bottle of beer for Doug, and he drank a shot of ‘Windsor,’ whiskey himself, with a beer chaser.
“You looking for me?” said Ace.
“Just came from Larry Lund’s house, John and Larry and Jennie and Jackie and Mouse, Sam too, Mike and David to including Reno (the fat man, of the neighborhood, and dear friend to Evens’, whom had two fights with in earlier years, beating him both times by Rice School, in back of his Grandfather’s house)they’re all drinking over there, just thought I’d stop by at your place to see if you’d be home.”
“Anyone else over there?” asked Evens.
“Mary Eldritch stopped by with Danny Knight,” he said, and Ace who liked Mary pushed the decanter towards the center of the table, she didn’t like either one, Ace or Danny, but she played them, and Ace was jealous, trying to hold it in. Danny was called ‘Crazy Dan,’ and he lived up to his reputation. She was with both of them invariably friendly and advising, if not enticing-homely, in fact ((and in time to come there would be a killing between Ace and Danny over her) (see end notes for more details)).
Ace lived with his mother and father, a few blocks down from Jerry’s house, on Sims Street. Larry lived down on Acker Street, about six blocks away, the tough guy of the neighborhood-a six-foot one hundred and pound boxer, and perhaps his house being considered the second drinking domicile in the neighborhood; he was twenty-six years old, and Evens used to date Jennie’s sister Jackie-Jennie being Larry’s wife, and David dated Nancy-bear in mind there was many Nancy’s in the neighborhood. And her sister Carol, who was a few years younger than Nancy, whom was Chick’s age, dated a fellow who was going into the Marines, by the name of Rockwater. And Sam and Mouse, both brothers to Larry: Sam dated a girl named Nancy from the neighborhood, and would soon marry her, and Mouse would marry Jackie who was now dating Doug, who at one time dated Chick. And Evens, was dating a girl named Sandy, who was seventeen, and was presently at Jerry Born’s bar on University Avenue, drinking; waiting for Evens whenever he’d finish his rounds at Jerry’s house, although she was not too anxious, she liked to play the field, even when she wasn’t playing the field. John, was taking Karin out whom he would marry, whom was a year younger than Evens, John being the same age as Chick, and John being a cousin to Larry. And Mike, also known as Gunner-Chick’s brother ((who liked gunning his cars so much he was nicknamed Gunner by the neighborhood hooligans)(the neighborhood being nicknamed: Donkeyland by the city police, who patrolled that locality of the city, because of all the stubborn hooligans in it)), was dating a girl from North Dakota by the name of Carol, a cousin to Roger Lindamen, who was dating a girl not from the neighborhood, and thus, not too well known-although he dated the Caretaker’s daughter, from Oakland Cemetery for a season, three years older than Evens, and the first girl Evens had ever kissed at the age of thirteen. Whereupon, he wanted Roger to allow him to kiss her again, and she agreed but Roger wouldn’t; Roger was now a bartender at the Horseshoe bar on Rice Street, being twenty-three, or four years older than Evens.
“You mean,” said Jerry, “you came by to see if he got paid to buy more booze for you guys down there a Larry’s,” and Doug smiled, went perfectly silent for a moment. “Well, he hasn’t got paid yet, and we got first dibs on his check, right Ace.” Ace looked as if he dropped into darkness, stubbornly and with difficulty, not knowing what to say, as if he had promised them his check likewise; as if he felt in the wrong for some odd reason.
Doug raised his eyes from the shot glass he was holding, gazed out the window, at the cheerless Jackson Street, Oakland Cemetery and its iron high fence, its landscape behind it. The evening was coming and it all lay quiet beside the empty sidewalk that stretched alongside the cemetery, two miles or so long; the oldest cemetery in the City of St. Paul. He had a kind of inane expression of sympathy, “We used to drink in there when we were kids,” he said looking at Evens. How true it was, they actually degraded themselves in there, vice and miserable drinking and malodorous odors from the girls they brought in there, carrying cans and bottles of beer and wine, Ripple Wine, and Thunderbird Wine, the cheapest wine they could get their hands on, rot gut wine, over the fence and resting on graves-desecrating the grounds and stonework.
As the lights went on outside, thoughts began to wander among the group, Betty’s hands touched Jerry’s shoulder, cold air seep in around the corner as Nancy shut the door for the next to last time, and went into the living room to watch television. She could no longer hear a thing in the kitchen.
Jerry replaced some of his cards wearily, as Ace said to Evens, “You should go back and date my sister Kathleen she’s dating this fellow, but…, she still likes you a lot, talks about you now and then.” Evens dated her when he was fifteen, as he dated Jackie, prior to her. Both Kathleen and Jackie and he were of the same age, went to the same High School, Washington High on Rice Street.
Then there was a knock at the door, it was Mike and Don Gulf; both dear friends of Jerry’s, both brothers, Don being two years older than Jerry, and Mike being the same age as Larry Lund, whom lived on Acker Street perhaps a block away from each other. Again, Nancy opened the door for them.
“Big Mike,” said Jerry. He had bruises on his face and his knuckles were scabbed. “I heard, just the other day, heard you had a fight with Don Quinn, the Minnesota ex Heavyweight Boxing Champion, at Bram’s bar?”
Evens stopped looking at his cards, it interested him, he had met Don Quinn, once, he was a broad man, and had big hands-like boulders, he was married to Sid Moeller’s sister, Sid was Chick’s friend who had died in a car crash just a few months earlier. Don was in line to fight the heavyweight champion of the world should he not have gotten beaten, Mohammed Ali.
“God have mercy on your soul,” said Jim, “how did it all turn out?”
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