Rosi Hollinbeck -- Middle Grade Historical
Freddy stuck his ball into his pocket, ran to his front porch, and grabbed the tin pail. He got to Ohio and Green out of breath and sweating. The buttons on his knickers were loose, and the heavy cuffs flapped against his shins. He might be only ten, but Poppa expected him to stay neat. He wouldn’t like it if Freddy looked like a bum. The car was still a block away. Dropping the pail, he buttoned his knickers below his knees.
Squat, brick tenement buildings and a rusty overpass carrying Chicago traffic stood across from him. Someday he would design beautiful bridges and elegant skyscrapers like those in the Loop. Someday. If he studied hard in school. And he would. No dirty factory work for him.
Poppa stepped from the streetcar and handed Freddy a quarter. They didn’t speak German much since the Great War, but when he spoke, his thick, guttural accent turned “w’s” into a “v’s” and the soft “th” sounds into hard “d’s” or “t’s.”
“No wasting time. We got some tings to talk about. You come straight home after de Schenke.” He turned and walked away.
“Well, that don’t sound good,” Freddy muttered as he walked to the speakeasy. Poppa usually came home from work happy. Sometimes they’d play a little catch in the park across the street, but not today. Freddy hurried. He had seen the back of Poppa’s hand enough times to know not to make him wait when he was grumpy.
Freddy pushed his way to the bar and put his pail up. He could barely see over the tall counter, but Otto knew who he was and what he wanted. And he knew better than to give Freddy a pail of foam.
“How you doin’, kid?” Otto smiled down at him. “Got a quarter? Put it up here.”
Freddy slapped the quarter down and watched while Otto filled the pail and scraped foam off before fitting the lid. The Cubs game blared from the radio behind the bar. Grover Cleveland Alexander was pitching against the Boston Braves, and the Cubs weren’t doing too well.
“Stupid Cubs! When’s the last time they had a real team?” some guy at the bar growled.
Someone answered, “Got Alexander and Lefty Tyler in 1918 and dat was sposta do it. It’s been eight years and nothin’!” He slammed his mug on the bar and pointed to it, letting Otto know he wanted another.
“Hey! Alexander’s a great pitcher. If anyone can help the Cubbies pull this out, it’s him.” Freddy didn’t like hearing guys talk bad about the Cubbies. He loved them and would like to hang around to listen to the game, but didn’t dare.
Otto pushed the pail across, shook his head slightly, and said, “Don’t you know bein’ a Cubs fan is gonna break your heart, kid?” The men all laughed.
Freddy took the pail, walking as quickly as he could without sloshing. It was only two blocks to home, but the wire handle cut into his hands. His arms ached by the time he set the pail on the sink-board. He pumped cool water to get the kinks from his fingers.
When he turned around, Poppa loomed over him. Poppa lifted the lid and nodded with a satisfied look. “No wasteful foam. Das ist gut. And you didn’t spill none. Ya. Sehr gut.”
Yes. That is good. Good he got it right. Poppa took a glass mug from the cupboard and dipped into the beer. He drank it down without a breath and filled it again, sat heavily at the kitchen table, and kicked another chair out from under it.
“Come. We talk.” He nodded toward the chair.
Freddy heard a whisper of feet by the partly-closed door to the hallway. His older sisters, Emmi and Gertrud, peeked between door and frame. Emmi crouched so Trudy could see over her, and she wiggled her forefinger at Freddy as if waving hello. Freddy sat. His feet didn’t quite reach the floor, and he swung them without thinking.
Poppa drank another half beer and wiped flecks of foam from his bushy mustache. His sharp blue eyes pinned Freddy to the chair.
“Momma been getting sicker and sicker. Doctor says she needs better medicine and food. More meat and such. You want Momma to get well, don’tcha?” Poppa said.
“Of course, Poppa. We all want Momma to get well.” Why would he ask?
Freddy searched his memory, trying to figure out when she had first gotten sick. It was a few days before Christmas. Now in August, she still stayed in bed, so small she was almost like a doll under the covers. Even though Trudy was only fourteen and Emmi twelve, they didn’t go to school. They took care of the house and Momma, bathing her and helping her turn so she wouldn’t get sores. Trudy whizzed around with brooms and rags, keeping everything shining. When Freddy smelled delicious aromas, he knew Emmi was in the kitchen, working her magic with vegetables from the garden the three of them kept in the back yard.
But everyone worried about Momma – his sisters and even his grown brothers, Walter and Karl, who visited two or three times a week after work.
Freddy helped Momma walk to the back porch each afternoon to sit in the sun for a little. He was almost as tall as she was and thought he probably weighed more. He surely was stronger. When she laid her hand on his arm, it was as if a dry autumn leaf landed there. Sometimes he thought he should carry her, but she was so fragile, he was afraid she would break or fly away on a puff of wind.
Poppa picked up the salt shaker and sprinkled some in his beer. “They cutting back hours at the factory. They only gonna pay us to work ten hours each day and only a half day on Saturdays starting next week.” He stared at the table top, then picked up the glass and drained it again. “You gonna need to go, Freddy. We can’t afford to keep you.”
Freddy heard a quiet sob from behind the door. When he looked, Trudy was gone, but Emmi remained, her eyes wide and full of tears. Freddy swallowed hard.
“Go, Poppa? Go where?” Freddy tried to look into his Poppa’s eyes, but Poppa took his jackknife out, opened the little blade, and started cleaning the black from under his cracked, blunt fingernails.
When Poppa spoke, his voice was thick, as if he needed to clear his throat. He seemed embarrassed. “We don’t got enough, Freddy. You’re a man now. You need to go.”
“Poppa,” Freddy said, almost a whisper, “Please, Poppa. I don’t know where to go. I can find milk bottles and turn ‘em in. Or carry shopping for rich ladies. I have to get your beer every day. The girls can’t do that. Maybe Otto down at the bar will lemme sweep and mop. I won’t eat much. I can —”
“Stop!” Poppa thundered, his fist hitting the table hard. The salt shaker fell over, spilling on the table top. Freddy stared. That was bad luck. He should throw some over his shoulder, but he couldn’t move.
Poppa stood and walked to the sink-board to fill his glass.
Freddy stared at the pail. It had cost a quarter. A QUARTER! And Poppa had one every day. But he couldn’t afford to keep his son.