First Chapter, Antoine Farot and Swede, Second Edition
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Its colder’n a well diggers ass in the Klondike. Me and Swede hopped this freight car about an hour ago in Minneapolis. We think its goin’ to Milwaukee. At least we hope it is. With any kinda luck, we could be in New Orleans by the end a next week. I told Swede that since we were gonna be hungry and homeless, we didnt have to be cold, too. So that’s when we both figured on goin’ south, which is where we’re headin now. Yesterday afternoon at the Thanksgiving dinner table, I took a Louisville Slugger to that Polack son of a bitch my mother married about two years after she packed us up and moved away from Pop, which was when he walked out the door on his way to a pool game in some joint down on Lyndale Avenue. I remember how good a player he was. I guess I inherited it from im. I’m a pretty good shot myself. Once I peaked through the window of some joint, and it was at that exact moment that he was runnin the table in a game of straight pool. God he was swell!
He was off to a pool game the day Ma left im. He was leavin the house, and she told im that her, my sister and me wouldnt be there when he got home, but I guess he didnt believe her cuz he went to the pool hall anyway. I cant hardly remember the event; its only the shadow of a memory from my childhood now, kept there by my sister who repeated the story over and over again. This was actually one a the more colorful stories she told about Pop, not one designed to make me feel guilty, which, I think, was her purpose most of the time when she talked about im to me. But when she told this story, a flicker of pride crossed her face as she described his swagger, sayin it made im appear a lot bigger’n he actually was. She said he looked dashing with his derby hat cocked to one side, struttin down the alley that last time, disappearin around the corner as soon as he reached the street. At that same time Sis says Ma was tellin her to start gettin our stuff together. We were movin to a different place and wouldnt be seein too much of my father anymore.
Two years later, my mother met and married this little Polish tight wad. I guess she had a thing for little guys, but size was the only thing that fuckin moron had in common with my father. Pop was a happy-go-lucky kinda guy who could talk to anybody. Just get a couple belts in im, and he was right at home in any company. If he had a couple bucks, he’d lose em or give em away in a minute. That was another reason why my mother left im. She thought he should take care of his family first. She was right. He used to always bring me and my sister little presents and things, and he was always kind to my mother, but he was real irresponsible. He was probly the last person in the world to ever have a wife and kids and responsibilities, but somehow he was dealt that hand, and I guess you could say in the end he had to fold.
So, my mother married this hard-ass little Polack, who’s so goddamn tight he squeaks. And he’s got this little-man complex, so he’s always kinda belligerent. He’s toughest on me, and then my ma. He never lays a hand on my sis. He dont physically beat my ma either; its more a mental thing. But he’s always got an excuse to hit me and beat me up. I guess he thinks it aint right to hit women, but men are okay, no matter how young or old they are. Well, somethin happened as the years passed. I started gettin bigger and stronger and I was learnin how to fight back. We’re both about the same size now, but I’m gettin to be a better fighter than him. I guess I really didnt need to use the baseball bat. I’m already strong enough and big enough and wiry enough to go to fist city with im and take im, too, but I just got so goddamn pissed off at the little asshole that I went nuts, just for a minute, and put im down for the count with the bat.
The scariest part is I dont know if I killed the son of a bitch or not. Not scary cuz I might be guilty of murder or manslaughter, but scary cuz it would break my ma’s heart if I did, and scary just the thought of killin another person. I mean, I killed plenty a squirrels with a slingshot before, but I dont know about killin a man. That’s different. All I could think of was how tired I was of him beatin on us all the damn time. His relationship with my sister Megan seemed kinda twisted to me. He always treated her like I think he shoulda been treatin my ma. I dont know for sure, but I dont think there’s anything queer goin’ on between em. Well, if there is and I killed im, there wont be from now on.
Last night in the jungle down near the train yard, we met James, and he took a likin to us right away and told us about this train goin’ to Milwaukee. He told us to stick with im and he’d show us how to hop onto a movin boxcar. We joined im at a campfire with two other fellas. None of us had much for food. When I ran outa the house leavin Megan and Ma cryin over that old cheap skate, I grabbed a bag a the doughnuts Ma makes every day. She makes em and I roam the streets sellin em. Well, I grabbed a bag before I ran outa the house, and Swede managed to get a hold of a half a loaf of bread when he left his house. One a the other men had stolen a can of Campbells tomato soup he heated in an old coffee can over the open campfire. With the soup and doughnuts and bread, the five of us managed to have a pretty good meal. After we ate, James played his mouth organ, and its strains were ever so comforting in a forlorn and melancholy way. Right now I’m kinda sad and lonely and I’m not alone. By no later than nine oclock we was huddled together in the cold Minneapolis night, sleepin around the well-stoked fire. It was freezin cold, and I was glad we was gonna be headin south, and for the first time in my life, I was gonna be someplace in the winter and there wouldnt be any snow on the ground.
A few minutes before dawn James was stirrin the hot coals of the fire and throwin the last pieces of wood on so we could have a fire to warm up some water for coffee when the sun came up. He said a Chicago bound freight would be leavin at nine oclock. We wanted to be on it, but we had to keep a keen eye out to make sure we didnt get pinched by the railroad dicks who are always tryin throw guys off the trains. By the time the sun broke over the horizon, all of us who slept by our campfire were awake and gatherin our stuff together.
There was still four doughnuts left in the bag. Before I left the house, I took the wool army blanket off my bed and rolled an extra pair of trousers and a shirt up in it and tied it with an old piece of clothes line. This was my travelin baggage. I split two of the doughnuts five ways and rolled the other two in their bag into the bedroll with my other things. I gave one piece each to Swede, James and the other two fellas at our campfire, and had the last piece for myself. We ate em with hot coffee in old tin soup cans which also warmed our hands on this freezin November mornin. Its a good thing the sun came out. Its actually turned out to be a fairly warm day. It was full above the eastern horizon by eight oclock, and by nine oclock we were hoppin this freight headin for Chicago. It’ll probly be stoppin in Milwaukee first.
The last sign I saw on a station was Winona. So far we’ve been lucky not to get rousted by any railroad bulls. The most uncomfortable part has been the freezin cold in this boxcar. Everybody in here is afraid to build a fire cuz the smoke will only bring the bulls down on us. Me and Swede are wrapped up in our blankets and we’ve got James in between us. Its better’n nothin, but its still cold. Its a good thing James is with us cuz some a these other fellas look like theyd try takin our blankets if all they had to deal with to get em was a couple teenage boys. They see James with us and they keep their distance.
I guess we’ll be stickin with James for quite a while. He’s goin’ where we’re goin’, and for the same reasonhe wants to get warm, too, plus he wants to find his ex-wife, and she’s out on the west coast. He was married and im and his wife were pretty well off until the Crash when he lost his job and couldnt keep her in the style she was used to, so she left im and ran off to Hollywood with some big shot producer. He said she got a couple roles in B movies that didnt go nowhere in the theaters, but the last he heard, she was still out there and doin pretty good. He even has it half way in his head that he’s gonna go all the way out there and look her up. If he does, I guess we’ll be stickin with im all the way. Our goal is to get to a place called Seal Beach, which is someplace out in Southern California; I’m still not sure where. Swede knows. He’s got an aunt livin there. If she’ll have us, we plan to stay with er until we get jobs and then we’ll get our own place. James says when we get to Milwaukee, we’re probly gonna have to get off before we get to town and walk ahead and catch it at the other end goin’ out. The word is that this train’s gonna lay over in Milwaukee for a couple hours. That should give us time to make it to the other end and catch it to Chicago.
I guess I’ll be ridin these rails for who knows how long, not knowin whether the Polack is dead or whether I only put im on queer street for a while. Its probly not such a swell idea that it happened on Thanksgiving, but goddamn it, I was tired of the abuse. You can only go so long always gettin the fat and gristle, and we were dirt poorI guess you could say we were asphalt and concrete poor since we were livin in the city. My stepdad was outa work since the stock market crashed two years ago. My ma made swell doughnuts, so she’d make up ten dozen or so, and then I’d peddle em around town, gettin around by sneaking on the back of streetcars, gettin a dime a dozen. That was always worth a buck or so a day, which was more’n we were gettin from Wiktor. Megan took in washin and ironin and made a couple bucks a day that way. It was hard times, and we were lucky to be gettin that much.
So the three of us are bustin our asses tryin to make some dough, and when we do and Ma buys some meat, the old man takes the lean and gives us the gristle. Well, Thanksgiving rolled around, and we got an early chill outa the north, and we had to get extra coal before the end a the month cuz it was so goddamn cold, and there’s just generally bad times all around. We was even cuttin the milk with water so that it would go further. Ma got this small ham for Thanksgiving dinner, and there wasnt much lean on it. There was quite a bit a fat, but it was all we could afford. Wiktor takes and cuts the fat off the ham, and divides it up three ways for Ma, Megan and me. Then he takes all the lean pork and starts carving it for himself. Not that we didnt expect somethin like that to happen. He done it before. I ate it before (I poured syrup over it so it would at least taste sweet) cuz if I didnt, I wouldnt have anything to eat, and I’m a growin boy, and sometimes we’d go for a whole week without any meat at all. Doin it to us on Thanksgiving was the last straw. I had enough; I couldnt take anymore, so I got up and went over and took his plate and set it in the middle a the table and began to cut what was on it into four portions. He got up from his chair and cuffed me up side the head, and started takin his plate back. That was when I got the baseball bat and just clubbed that fuckin jerk as hard as I could. He went down to the floor and didnt move. It scared the shit outa me.
I went over to my chest a drawers in one corner of the room (it was basically a two room bungalow with a kitchen), got some a my things out, wrapped em up in my army blanket, and hit the road. My first thought was to head south cuz I wanted to get warm. As cold as it is right now, I know its gonna be freezin, or even colder, soon. I went over to Swede’s house. He’s been my best pal ever since we were walkin home from school together one day, and four other fellas jumped us and the two of us kicked their asses. We were best friends after that, and we been constant pals ever since. He helped me sell the doughnuts. When we worked together, we got business up to twenty-five dozen doughnuts a day, and Sis helped Ma with the cooking.
So, havin my mind made up that I was leavin town, I walked over to Swede’s to say goodbye or see if he wanted to come with me. He’s been gettin the same shit at his house as I’ve been gettin at mine, but his comes from his real dad. I wonder if things woulda been any different if my Pop was livin with us instead a Wiktor. Times are tough. There’s a depression on. People are outa work, and that seems to make em irritable and in a bad mood all the time. Me and Swede aint the only ones neither; I know some other kids who’re gettin beat up by their dads, too. Must be a sign of the times.
I went over to Swede’s house with my bedroll tucked under my arm. I was wearin a pretty heavy, red and black, plaid, wool jacket. Its probly the only good-quality thing I have to my name. I kept my head warm with a brown checked, eight panel, wool Donegal Newsboy.
Swede’s family Thanksgiving ended in a fight, too. By the time I got there, he’d already left the house, and nobody knew where he was. I knew where to find im. I went over to the playground where we hung around on warm summer days, tryin to get the girls to go off in the bushes with us. He was there, by himself, sittin in the bleachers next to the ball diamond. I climbed up and sat down next to im and told im I was runnin away. I didnt even have to finish tellin im about it before he was on his feet and ready to go back to his house and get his stuff so we could get outa there together as quick as possible. It wasnt as easy for him to get away from his house as it was for me. My stepdad, if he was still alive, was probly glad to be rid of me, but I think Swede’s dad wanted to keep im around so he could beat on im some more. He had to go back home, get his stuff, and sneak out without gettin caught.
He left me in the park and walked back home. It took im about an hour, but he finally came back. He was wearin a heavy, black, wool jacket, and a knitted, navy-blue watch cap. He had his things wrapped in a heavy wool blanket. We’d be glad real soon that we had those blankets. He pulled a letter outa the breast pocket of his jacket and showed it to me. It was actually an empty envelope with a canceled two cent stamp on it. It was addressed to his mother, and the return address was Ingrid Johnson with a post office box in Seal Beach, California. He told me that Ingrid Johnson was his aunt, his mother’s sister, and we should try to get to her place. He said his aunts always writin to his mother how warm and sunny it is where she lives. He stuffed the envelope back inside his coat, and we started walkin to the switichin yard over between Washington Avenue North and the river where Plymouth Avenue crosses, and hung around a while tryin to figure out what to do. My idea was to try and get to Chicago. I figured it was probly the train hub of the country, and most likely there’d be a lota traffic goin’ outa there, specially traffic headin south. If we could get to Texas, maybe we could get work on a ranch somewhere, or as rough necks in the oil fields. To me the most important thing is to get into the warm weather.
So we were hangin around the switichin yard tryin to figure which train to hop to get to Chicago. I walked by there a lota times before, and had seen men gettin on and off the freight trains. They all seemed to hang around this one spot which was at the edge of the switichin yard where the trains were still goin’ slow enough for em to jump on. We were standin behind this group where a few stragglers walked up and down. It was startin to get dark, which is the best time to evade the bulls who seem to appear from nowhere to roust bums and hobos travelin aimlessly through this depression, lookin for work at every stop, lookin for somethin to eat when theyre too hungry to go on. Me and Swede joined their ranks. Its scary as hell, but its also an adventure, and it aint no scarier than goin’ back to face murder or manslaughter charges, or worse yet, to face Wiktor Sadlo.
When we realized that it wasnt such a smart idea to travel at night cuz of the cold, we wandered over to one a the campfires, and that’s when we met James. We hit it off with im right away, and he told us to stick with im and he’d show us which train was the one we wanted. The first thing we learned from im was that we wouldnt be goin’ straight to Chicago, but to Milwaukee first and then south to Chicago, where, he promised us, we’d be able to catch a freight to just about any place in the country we wanted to go. He said the last steady job he had was in Kansas City in twenty-nine at the time of the Crash. Since bein on the bum, he picked up odd jobs here and there, which mostly just paid im with a free meal. As we sat around the fire with the other two bums, James pulled out his mouth organ and started playin some mournful music. The music and the train whistles gave me this lonesome, melancholy feelin, and the ragged men I saw scramblin up and down the rails lookin for trains to catch only made me more lonesome.
I dont think I ever felt that lonely before in my life. This was it. We were on our own. We were gonna have to fend for ourselvesno more mother to go home to for comfort in time of trouble. Course our mothers couldnt be much comfort to us anyway; theyre tryin to keep their husbands happy and dont have time for our problems. I love my mother, and I’m already beginnin to miss her. The terror in her scream and in the look on her face when I left the house is already hauntin me. I wanna reach out to her, to reassure her that I’ll be all right, and that this is gonna pass, too, but I cant do that. Now I’m a fugitive, like the wind, and I have no idea how far I will have to run, or how long I’ll be runnin.
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