Sunday, June 5, 2011
Freddy ran to his front porch and grabbed the tin pail. He could make it to the streetcar stop if he ran his hardest. The buttons on his knickers were loose, and the heavy cuffs flapped against his shins. Poppa wouldn’t like it if he looked like a bum. As much as he tried to please Poppa, there was always something between them. He arrived at the corner of Ohio and Green and saw the car two blocks 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.
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 vasting time. Ve 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 was usually happy after work, but not today. Freddy better not make him wait. He had a mean streak sometimes.
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 ain’t had a good year since 1918,” Freddy heard somebody growl.
Someone answered, “Not even a SNIFF of the series in eight years! Da bums.” He slammed his mug on the bar and pointed to it, letting Otto know he wanted another.
Freddy loved the Cubbies. He would like to hang around and listen to the game, but didn’t dare.
Otto pushed the pail across, and Freddy took it, 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 vasteful 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. Ve 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 vant Momma to get vell, 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 was still staying in bed. She was a little bump under the covers and couldn’t talk very loud. She seemed to be shrinking. Even though Trudy was only fourteen and Emmi twelve, they took care of all Momma’s needs, cooking for her and dressing her, gently bathing her and helping her turn so she wouldn’t get sores.
They all worried – his sisters and even his grown brothers, Walter and Karl, who came by to visit 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 had landed there. Sometimes he thought he should carry her out, 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. “Dey are cutting back hours at da factory. Dey only gonna pay us to vork ten hours each day and only half a day on Saturdays.” He stared at the table top, then picked up the glass and drained it again. “You’re gonna need to go, Freddy. Ve can’t afford to keep you.”
Freddy heard a quiet sob from behind the door. When he looked, Trudy was gone, but Emmi remained. Freddy swallowed hard, forcing tears down.
“What do you mean go, Poppa? I’m ten. 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. “Ve don’t got enough, Freddy. You’re a man now. You need to go.”
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