The Good Life
Sitting by the front windows and counting automobiles, the boy was glad that it was Sunday. There wasn’t as much work and there were more cars than on other days. His straight mouth and blue eyes showed concentration but not any emotion. Harry was waiting for a green pick-up truck that had dropped him off there at some hazy point in his past. He knew that he hadn’t always been at the orphanage, but he couldn’t remember how long it had been since his father had told him to be good and wait until he could come back for him. The truth was that he hadn’t learned to keep track of time very well.
“Harry, you gonna’ play ball?” It was Roger. Harry didn’t mind Roger because he knew that he could kick the shit out of him any time that he needed to.
“How many guys you got?” He wouldn’t have bothered to ask but it was Sunday and the car count could go over a hundred.
“Seven on a side with you.”
Harry’s expression cracked into a grin that moved his ears back. It was a good number. It was afternoon and probably no one else was coming there that day. Who cared that he wrote down the numbers for the week and then added them up and threw out the paper when there were seven totals of cars to be added.
As soon as they hit the door, Harry started to run. The speed, the wind, and the side blur of immobile things moving passed him got him excited.
In Father Bishop’s office there were no lights on and the drapes were drawn. Harry was waiting. He sat in the straight chair that was meant to remind him why he was there. Harry looked at the leather chairs and couch and tried to squint up an image of his father coming back for him, but he knew that he wasn’t allowed out of the punishment chair.
Father Bishop opened the door with an unconscious quietness. His face registered placid annoyance at the sight of Harry. “So you’re the ungrateful piece of trash that hits other boys on Sunday?”
Harry knew that he was under scrutiny and that anything he did would be the wrong thing. He kept his eyes on the floor. The shiny black shoes were standing next to him. The priest grabbed his left ear and pulled Harry to his feet. “Are you pretending not to hear me?”
Harry grimaced but did not cry out. “No father.”
The hand let go of his ear, would up and smacked against the side of his head. “You know the rules against fighting, Harold?”
“Is there anything that you want to tell me before you are punished for what you did?”
“I’m sorry,” Harry hesitated and raised his head until he was looking straight at the priest, “that I didn’t get to finish the fight.”
The priest rocked back on his heels and reached for his strap. “This time you’ll lower your pants in order to help you with your penance, Harold.”
Harry was too sore to be comfortable, but the tears that he hadn’t been able to stuff back were dried on his face and arms. Roger stuck his head down from the overhead bunk. The dark haired boy was more curious than concerned. “He strapped your ass until you bled, didn’t he?”
“Did he get Jack too?
“Right after he was done with you.”
“Did you grab anything from supper?”
“Couldn’t get away with anything but some bread,” said Roger.
“You’d do it for me. Why did Jack start with you Harry?”
“I’ll get him back,” said Harry.
The orphanage had one room that was set aside to teach the boys to read, write and do arithmetic. The rest of their education was confined to religion and manual labor. Harry was never really happy at the sight of Father Bishop, but he knew how the priest worked his system. Boys who had broken the rules were separated from the rest and given time to think about what they had done. Then they were strapped and sent back. There were no favorites in the home. The squealers were strapped just as hard as the boys who had broken the rules. Harry didn’t know if it was cruel, but it seemed fair.
He wasn’t unusually frightened when Father Bishop came to the school room to get him. He had been strapped again yesterday for getting even with Jack. The welts on his rear were still sore but he could move okay and he wasn’t letting on that anything was bothering him. Complaining about the after effects of being strapped just got you strapped again.
“I want you to come with me, Harold.”
They were going to the priest’s office, but Bishop stopped him outside the door and gave him an inspection. “Tuck in your shirt properly and comb your hair.” The priest watched as Harry smoothed his shirt around the waist of his pants. The priest’s eyes waited while the boy finger combed his thin, blonde hair.
Harry tried to hide his excitement at the sight of William Brandt, but seeing his father overwhelmed him, and unknowingly, the boy’s mouth dropped open. Brandt was a large man with a barrel chest and the tell-tale redness of hard drinking on his face.
“I come to get ya, Harry.”
Father Bishop ushered Harry into one of the leather chairs and then sat down behind his desk. “You left Harry with us about two and a half years ago, Mr. Brandt. We think that you’ll find him a different boy than he was then. He’s had the chicken pox and several fevers that have gone on for weeks and just run their course. He still doesn’t eat very well and seems to have a mean streak in him. We’ve attempted to address that behavior with a moderate amount of success. Harold has grown to expect to be sternly corrected when he misbehaves. We suggest that you continue that practice so that the work that we’ve started here won’t be lost. The Lord has taught us that children profit from the strap.”
“I hope that he hasn’t been too much trouble to ya father, but you can be sure that the Mrs. and me won’t go against anything that you done.”
“We’re here for more than the convenience of the needy, Mr. Brandt. Please require that Harold continue to go to church regularly. It is the small price that we ask in exchange for our services and of course whatever donation that you’ve decided upon for the time that he spent here.”
Brandt looked over at his youngest son. “Ain’t really got much I can give you right now Father, but as soon as money comes in, we’ll be sending something along.
The first thing that surprised Harry was that there was no green pick-up truck parked in front of the orphanage. The second surprise was that his father lived close enough for the two of them to walk to his new home.
The man watched his son walking alongside of him. The boy was tall for eight years old and Brandt saw traces of his old wife in Harry’s face. The insight caused an uncomfortable emotion and made him feel like he had to say something. He didn’t like to feel that he had to speak to his children.
“I’m married. When you talk to her, you’ll call her Mrs. Brandt. There are other children from the Mrs. and from me that have been there for a while now.
“Is that where Tommy is?”
“I ain’t answering questions, Harry. I’m just telling you what you need to know. Brandt waited and saw that the priest was right. The boy put his head down and Brandt knew that there wouldn’t be any more questions about the past. The past wasn’t there and so there was nothing to talk about.
Robert Tuck was working out of a vacant lot down the street from the Brandt apartment. Its debris made it a magnet for neighborhood kids. Harry discovered the lot on the first day of his new freedom. It was late spring and the rest of the kids still has a couple of weeks of school left before vacation. Harry was happier than he could ever remember being. All of the local events were new to him and he set out to learn the area with the curiosity of an explorer.
When Harry first met Robert Tuck, he was stripping car seats. Harry watched the man cut the seats open with a knife and separate the horsehair, the springs and the seat coverings. The man was strong and deliberate in his motions. Harry stood behind a stack of junk, fascinated by the way the man opened the seats up and yanked out their guts. Finally, he showed himself. Abruptly, Tuck jerked his head in the boy’s direction.
“What are you doing there, boy?”
“Mind your own business.”
Harry was buoyed by his release from captivity and blurted out a sentence. “Didn’t mean anything, Mister. I just liked watchin’ the way that you did that.”
Tuck snorted and looked around himself with disgust. “Why ain’t you in school or out playin’ ball?”
“School’s over. Don’t know anybody to play ball with.” Harry stuck his hands in the pockets and began to walk away.
“Come over here. I’ll show you what I do.”
Before the words were even out of him, Tuck saw the boy whirl around and start back to where he was working.
“What do you do with all this stuff?”
“You sell it. You sell it for scrap and it gets used again. You break things apart so that they can be used for something else.” When Tuck eyed the boy, Harry put his head down and stared at the man’s split and muddy boots. “Now look here.” Tuck lifted a car seat. “Two cuts across the back and then two cuts across the seat.”
Tuck showed the boy the entire process several times. Harry was hypnotized by the sound of the knife and the new look of things that came out of beat up car seats. Robert Tuck talked to him on and off and Harry just shook his head yes or no. He didn’t want to spoil things by asking any more questions.
Harry disliked the Mrs. son Don from the day that he was brought to the Brandt apartment and given a cot to sleep on in the room where Don had his bed. When Harry looked at the bureau and asked which drawer he could use, Don smirked and said, “They’re all full. Besides, you ain’t got no stuff.”
Harry showed Don his cloth bag and told him that he did have stuff. The ten year old continued to taunt him. “I don’t want your smelly stuff touching anything that’s mine.”
When Harry shoved the boy back and saw how easily he fell, it was his turn to smirk. He advanced like a shark and lifted Don by a handful of his frightened hair. “I’m taking a drawer for my stuff. If you say anything about it, I’ll bust you in the face.”
Don wailed, “He’s killing me in here.”
Mrs. Brandt had been against bringing Harry back to her house from the start. When she heard her boy’s cries, she hurried into the room and saw him sprawled on the floor. Harry was standing over him with his fists in balls and the tip of his shoe was discharging an efficient kick into her son’s stomach. “William!” she shrieked. She waddled to her son and helped him up. He was bent over and holding his stomach with both hands while tears dripped down his face. Mrs. Brandt shielded her son from Harry and waited for her husband.
William Brandt did not like to be disturbed while he was sitting on the porch. The tone of her voice told him that he had to go inside and that news didn’t make him happy.
“He’s already made a mess of this room and he kicked Donald in the face,” said the woman whose sweaty hair was stuck to the sides of her face.
“I didn’t kick him in the face, Pop, I didn’t,” shouted Harry.
Brandt glared at his son for a moment and then swung hard. The blow knocked Harry to the wall and then a big hand pinned him there. Harry smelled something strange on his father’s breath. “You’ll do what the Mrs. says or you’ll get a beatin’ Harry. This is the only time that I’m going to say it.”
They brought Harry back to the orphanage before the end of the summer. Harry could tell that it was coming and so before he left, he knocked out three of Don’s teeth and punched one of his eyes closed for a week.
Father Bishop didn’t exactly welcome him back with open arms, but he did talk to him in his office where he allowed Harry to sit in one of the leather chairs. “You’ve decided to send yourself back here, Harold. That doesn’t say much for your ability to use the education that we have given you in a proper way. Do you know that every boy in here would have wanted the great opportunity that you just threw away?” Harry didn’t answer. He didn’t look up. “I do know that you are here now and you are here for good. Struggling against our ways, Harold, would be a sinful and stupid way of behaving. Dinner is over for the evening. You’ll find the others at evening prayers. I suggest that you join them.”
The thing that Harry missed the least about life in the orphanage was the prayers, but he walked to the chapel relieved that he knew what was waiting for him.
It was the next morning on his way across the yard when he saw Robert Tuck. Over the summer the two had become daily companions and Tuck had used Harry to help him increase his output. Tuck was driving a grey pick-up truck with a green door. “Harry,” he called up and jerked his head in way that indicated he wanted to talk to him.
When Harry got to the truck he said, “I ain’t supposed to talk to anyone without Father Bishop’s say-so.
“Harry, I hate to see you locked up in a place like this. I’m moving on and I’ll take you with me but you got to come now.”
Harry wanted to go. It was instinctive and he wasn’t stopping to think about it. Don had been right about one thing; he didn’t have any stuff. Harry climbed the short fence easily and jumped into the truck. They left New Jersey and headed for Connecticut.
Putnam was Southern New England farm country about six hours and a world outside of Newark. It was dark long before they got there because Tuck took a circuitous route that by passed all of the larger roads. The insects startled Harry, smudging the windshield and filling the headlight beams. Not wanting to ask questions, Harry stayed quiet and imagined himself winning a baseball game with a clutch catch followed by a big hit. He was unaware of Robert Tuck’s eyes on him as the man wondered how he was going to tell his sister.
“Harry, I want the people on the farm to treat you like one of their own. You call me Pop and tell anybody who asks you that your name is Harry Tuck.”
“Yes, Sir.” Harry felt something quiver inside him, but he stuffed it back down and it went away.
Vernon and Adelia ran a dairy farm. They had no children of their own, so they provided a foster home for state wards in order to get the few dollars a month that the state provided. Adelia worked the kids like farm hands and treated them in a way that would never let them forget their place.
At meals, the family drank milk and the state kids got water. When they visited her sister in East Haddam, the state kids put in a double duty of chores and worked both places. There were two kinds of food on Adelia’s table, family food and what she gave to the state kids. But she never hit them unnecessarily. She gave them medicine when they were sick and they loved her. At first Harry expected to be treated like one of the state kids. After the second meal of milk, vegetables, meat and bread, he saw that he was like one of the family.
Except for piling the manure up with old straw, Harry liked work on the farm. Each morning, he would get up about four-thirty and watch Vernon milk the cows. The farmer sat on a three legged stool, puffing his corn cob pipe and looking like somebody out of a Norman Rockwell picture. “Farming is hard work, Harry but the dirt’s cleaner out here and it’s peaceful.”
“The noises at night keep me awake,” said Harry.
“Haven’t heard any noises.”
“Them sounds like clickers. I hear ‘em every night.”
“Crickets, Harry. You sure enough are from the city. It just don’t seem natural somehow.”
Harry could watch for hours at a time without pestering. By the end of the month there, he had learned to ride on the farm horse and how to milk a cow. Proudly, he would carry the fresh pail to the vat, careful not to spill any.
Robert Tuck hated farm work. Every morning he would go off in his truck after morning chores and after breakfast and come back with a haul before lunchtime. In the afternoons, he and Harry would sort through the junk. Mostly, Tuck was collecting old bicycles and discarded car seats that he would take from wrecks wherever he could find them. Harry had become proficient at stripping the seats and the money that Tuck got from the scrap paid for the few working bicycle parts that he couldn’t manufacture. Eventually he had a collection of twenty working bicycles.
“Adelia, the boy and me are going to be moving on soon.”
“Thomas, are you going to that danged city again?”
“Adelia, you can’t call me Thomas anymore.”
“It’s the name that god knows you by. If you stayed away from that city, it would be a name that you could live with.”
“We both know that isn’t so. This ain’t my place either.”
“Vernon has never said a word. What kind of place is it where a man has to make up who he is so that the authorities can’t find him?”
“There’s plenty of men like me in Newark.”
“What about the boy? Don’t you think that somebody is looking for him?”
“No body’s looking for Harry. He’s a help.”
Robert Tuck, alias Thomas Rondeau, alias Eddie Tuck, alias Joe Branning left the farm in late September. They didn’t go straight back to the city. Tuck needed more of a stake to execute his plan and so they lived on the road. They stole most of their food from farms and slept on the side of the road behind billboards or clumps of trees. They rarely bathed and had no change of clothes. Harry was happy enough. Every day he practiced throwing stones, but Tuck wouldn’t let him ride any of the bicycles that he kept in the bed of the truck oiled under a canvas covering.
“We’re saving the bicycles for the customers, Harry. A man can make a good living renting bicycles in the city.”
“That’s great, Pop.”
The problem that Tuck saw coming was the change in the seasons. It was getting colder, but Tuck knew that the fifty dollars that he had managed to stash away wouldn’t be enough. He was going to have to go back sooner than he liked.
Harry never complained. He worked hard, kept his mouth shut, learned how to help get the food and wash himself and his clothes in the stream water. He did notice that they were moving into areas where he saw more people than he had before, but he didn’t think anything about it or ask any questions.
“This guy’s bumper is locked onto the other man’s bumperette. Get a grip on the top one Harry and we’ll bounce of them together.”
Harry wrapped his fingers around the top bumper and stood on the bottom one. Tuck started the three count that he used when they worked together, while the two drivers tried to disengage their cars. The two of them bounced and the metal scraped and bounced with them. Then there was a snap and a scream. Harry was dazed. His arm was shaking and he was very pale. When he looked down at the bloody mass of his right hand, he could only see four fingers. The middle finger was dangling underneath his palm, held on by flesh and skin and one unsevered tendon. “Pop, it’s broken.” Harry tried to grab for the finger with his left hand but the pain shocked him like electricity and he had to let go.
“Harry, it’s pretty bad. We got to get you to the hospital.”
“Don’t want no hospital, Pop. It’ll get better by itself.”
“We got no choice here Harry.”
Harry was trying to stuff back tears but it wasn’t working. He put his head down and stared at his dirty boots while the man put his arm on the boy’s shoulder and wrapped the hand in a grimy towel.
The hospital doctor saw the need for immediate surgery. The knuckle was crushed and there was a good chance that the finger would have to come off.
Robert Tuck stood nervously by the front desk answering questions.
“Harry Tuck is his name.”
“How old is he?”
“About twelve,” guessed Tuck.
“Are you his father?”
“How did it happen?”
“He was trying to unhook these two cars that got stuck together.”
“Have a seat, Mr. Tuck. The doctor will be with you when he can. We’re very busy.”
Tuck thought about walking out the door. He thought about what Adelia would have said to him, but he sat down and waited. He always felt uneasy around people like this. They had rules that they never told you about until it was too late.
After the operation that managed to save the finger, Harry developed osteomyelitis. The bone infection kept him in the hospital for two months. Then he came down with Rheumatic Fever and was moved to the hospital for contagious diseases. It was summer again before he got out.
Tuck took a furnished room and spent the winter splitting cars with an acetylene torch. He would visit Harry every month. By the next summer, the ten year old boy who now thought that he was thirteen found that Tuck had opened the bicycle rental and repair shop.
Harry was brought to his first diner that summer. He loved it immediately. Harry and Robert Tuck sat at the counter on swivel stools and read the menu board. Harry couldn’t believe that he got to choose what he wanted to eat. He watched the meat sizzling on the grill and smelled the steaming soup. He stared at the stacks of clean plates, glittering knives and forks and spoons like they were sacred instruments. He spun around on the chair and watched the other patrons and heard pieces of conversations. His eyes got wide when the cash register opened and then the most magical thing happened; from all around him there was music as someone used the juke box. Harry’s smile moved his ears back as he bit into his burger.
They went to the diner twice a day. Tuck struck a deal with the owner and paid his tab once a week. Harry was allowed to go on his own and have a Blue Plate any day that Robert wasn’t around.
George Lafer owned the Washington Diner and slowly he got to know Harry. One day he said, “How old are you, kid?”
“Would you like to make some money?”
Harry smiled his most winning smile. “Sure, what do you need done?”
“I need a dishwasher that I can trust to show up here every morning and after supper. I’ll pay you one dollar a day.”
“When can I start?”
“Right now,” said Lafer.
The Chestnut Street Luncheonette had a counter, eight booths, a jukebox and a grill. When Harry got back from service, he started eating meals and spending some of his free time there. He was one of the lucky guys. One of the first to get out when the war was finished, one of the few who never really left the country, and one of the first to get a job after he was out. He stocked and repaired jukeboxes for Emerson Music, lived out of a sleeping room and had his own radio. He bought himself nifty looking clothes and jewelry and discovered that people liked him, including girls.
Harry had learned to create a past for himself that he liked. He heard war stories from other Vets and he made them his stories. What was the past but a collection of made up things anyway? If he could use a story or two to his advantage what was the harm? The good news was that it filled in those spaces that he didn’t want to remember. He began to believe the stories that he told about himself. He had been in England. He had gotten into a fight with some British Commandos after commenting on their short pants. The army had been alright, even though he had hated it and tried every way that he knew to get out.
Hanging at the luncheonette was an acquired skill that Harry had learned well. He knew just how long to let his coffee last before it was conspicuous. He knew how to lean against the jukebox and feed it slugs that would allow him to play five songs at a time. The overall trick was that he knew how to stay there for hours without getting in anybody’s way or looking lost or out of place.
Harry checked the crease of his gray slacks. In the men’s room mirror he smoothed his hair and inspected the way that his powder blue shirt lay underneath his dark blue sweater. He grabbed some toilet paper and buffed a smudge or two from his shoes. He tugged up the blue socks that were already in place, adjusted his watch band and ring and headed back to the counter.
One for My Baby was playing on the jukebox. Harry sat on Marjorie’s side of the counter and read the menu board.
“What can I get for you today, Harry?”
“What do you think is good?”
“It’s all pretty good. You know what you like.”
“Well what would you order if you were going to eat?”
“I eat at home with my grandmother. She doesn’t like me to take meals out.”
Marjorie stared at his face as he concentrated on the menu board. She thought, what’s he reading? It’s the same menu as yesterday and he was in here yesterday and the day before that.
“Give me the franks and beans, Margie, when you get the chance.”
“Didn’t you see anything that you really liked?”
“Yeah, the franks and beans.”
“That’s what you get when you don’t see something that really interests you.” She smiled full into his face and her green eyes danced for him. When she turned around to get his coffee, he was attracted to the big bow that held her apron shut in the back. It made her look like the gift boxes that he saw in the department store windows.
“What song would you like to hear, Margie?”
“I like Dream.”
“The Pied Pipers, that’s a good tune.” Harry swung smoothly around in the chair and walked over to the jukebox as she watched him. He dropped one of his five song slugs into the slot and punched up Sentimental Journey, The More I See You, My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time, Candy, and Dream. The Les Brown Orchestra filled the place with its smooth introduction and Harry began tapping his foot.
“This is a nice song,” said Margie. She smiled at him and he grinned back.
“Your song should be coming up next,” he said.
The band sounded sweet but powerful and Marjorie looked at Harry thinking that he was like that too. She placed a napkin and silverware in front of the stool that he had been using.
Harry checked his watch against the luncheonette clock and came over to his seat. “Have you seen any movies lately?”
Marjorie thought and scrunched her eyebrows together. “Not too many. I did see Gaslight a while ago.
“I saw that.”
“What a picture!”
“It was OK.”
“I loved it,” said Marjorie. She wanted Harry to give the movie more of an endorsement.
“I was thinking about going to see Anchors Aweigh.” He sneaked a peek to her to see if she was picking up on his drift. She seemed oblivious to it.
“What’s that about?”
“I don’t know yet, a War picture, I think.”
“Would you like to go and see it with me?”
Marjorie’s smile faded. “I don’t think that I could, tonight.”
“I mean some other time.”
“Maybe, when I’m not working.”
When Harry finally got around to asking for a specific date, Marjorie said yes. He had talked with her about music and movies and a lot of other things by then. She knew that he didn’t like Bing Crosby because he thought that Bing was a phony. He liked the Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras and he loved Les Brown and Glen Miller. He told her that he had wanted to be a musician when he was a kid.
“Why don’t you give it a try? You’re still young.”
Harry held up his right hand and was able to wiggle his badly disfigured middle finger a little. “I wouldn’t be able to do much with this.”
“What happened to it?” said Marjorie. She looked at the finger curiously. It wasn’t like any that she’d ever seen before and it gave him a look of experience.
“I got it caught on a car bumper. They almost took it off.”
“Wow,” said Marjorie. “Does it still bother you?”
“I got hit in the head with a rock when I was five years old. I still have a bump there.” Marjorie ran her fingers into the back of her hair until she found the bump and tried to press it back into her skull.
The big hit at The Paramount Theater was The Lost Weekend staring Ray Milland. Marjorie was impressed but Harry was quiet after the movie.
“That was some picture,” said Marjorie.
“It was OK.”
“Didn’t you like it?”
“It was a little, depressing.”
“But it had a good story to tell and it was really good acting.”
“I suppose,” said Harry.
When I’ll be Seeing You came on the green pick-up’s radio, Harry turned up the volume and said, “I think about you when I hear this song.”
She listened to the song for a moment and then said, “Let’s play a game. We can take turn naming the pictures and the stars.”
“I don’t pay attention to actors names that much.”
“Just try. I’ll show you. If I said Gaslight you could say Charles Boyer or Ingrid Bergman. You see?”
“Double Indemnity,” said Harry.
“Barbara Stanwyck. My turn.” She smiled her eyes shining. “Mildred Pierce.”
“Who’s that?” laughed Harry.
“It’s a movie. Come on.”
Harry shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“What about Keys to the Kingdom?”said Harry.
“I think you got me,” said Margie, thrilled to have been gotten, “Wait.”
“Gregory Peck,” said Harry.
“I said to wait.”
They parked in front of her rooming house and then he kissed her. He pulled away before she had the chance to kiss him back.
“I had fun tonight, Harry.”
“I want to see you again.”
“Yes, but I don’t know when I can.” She put his hand on his shoulder and squeezed it lightly and then was gone.
He could feel the place where she touched him for a long time.
Harry also went out with other girls, mostly ones that he met at other luncheonettes. Some of them drank in the front seat of his truck with him and then they would open their blouses. Some of them told him how good looking he was and wanted to watch him play softball. But Marjorie, who never told him what she thought of his looks, who never gave him more than a good-night kiss and was never interested in seeing him play ball, was the one who made him laugh. He liked to talk with her.
When she found out about one of the other girls, she told him that she didn’t want to go out with him anymore. She made him say that he was sorry and promise not to do it anymore. Then she made him wait for a month before she would go out with him again.
One night after they had seen A Double Life and were talking about how good an actor Ronald Coleman was, Harry simply said, “Let’s get married, Margie.”
Dinah Shore was singing Doing what Comes Naturally on the radio and Margie said, “OK, if my grandmother says that it’s alright.”
Harry liked Marjorie’s grandmother and he knew that she had raised Margie and so he responded quickly, “She could live with us.” Harry joined their church and became a Presbyterian and they were married.
On their wedding night, Margie said, “Harry, promise me that you won’t laugh at me if I tell you a secret?”
“I won’t laugh.”
“I don’t know anything about sex. I mean I know where you put it but that’s all that I know.”
Harry smiled and promised that he would show her.
“Did you learn from the other girls that were you seeing while you were dating me?”
“No,” said Harry, wondering if she would know the truth. “It’s just something that guys learn in the service.”
They left for Putnam, Connecticut the morning after they were married. Margie wasn’t sure that she wanted to go. “Wouldn’t you like to just stay around the neighborhood and fix up the apartment?”
“I want you to meet these people. They’ve been very good to me.”
Marjorie grew more nervous after they drove out of Newark. They tried playing the movie game but Harry kept naming war pictures like A Wing and a Prayer and None Shall Escape. Margie said that she didn’t want to play anymore and turned on the radio. When she heard Doris Day singing Laughing on the Outside, Crying on the Inside she began to sob. “I don’t think that I can keep going, Harry. Maybe we should turn around and go some other time.”
“You know what Margie? Bob Tuck’s not my real father.”
Her eyes widened. “Who is?”
“His name is William Brandt.”
“Where is he?”
“Didn’t you ever try to find him?”
“He left me at an orphanage and Tuck got me out and kept me with him.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Harry, I told you about my mother dying and about not ever knowing my father.”
“It’s easier for you to talk about some things than it is for me. My real father walked away and left me.”
“So did mine.”
At that moment, he was sure that he loved her and that getting married had been the right thing to do. At the same time, Marjorie was sure that she had made a terrible mistake and wanted more than anything to see her grandmother.
Their life together was happy and silly. When they came back from Connecticut and the people that Marjorie secretly hated, they settled in with Marjorie’s grandmother in a two room apartment.
“How much do you think that you’ll need for food?” said Harry.
“I don’t know. Give me five dollars.”
“After buying their dinner, Margie went out and treated her friends to sodas and bought herself a pair of shoes. The next day she said, “I need more money for groceries, Harry.”
He gave her five dollars each day until his money was almost gone and then hollered, “Jesus Christ! Where the hell is all the money going?”
Margie got scared and told him about treating her friends. She promised not to do it anymore and the next morning Harry left her another five dollars. They loved to window shop and teased each other about the vast numbers of things that they wished they were able to buy.
Harry had his first affair after Margie got pregnant. Her name was Ethel and he met her in the choir of Marjorie’s church. When Marjorie found out about it, she told Harry that he had to leave but Harry told her that nothing had really happened and that he had learned his lesson. After that, he told Ethel that they had to be more careful.
At the South Broad Street Distributing Company, Harry worked every other night and every other weekend in addition to his regular job at Emerson Music. Juke boxes and pin balls were his specialty. He taught himself how to read the meters and use the scopes. That, along with his mechanical ability, made him a natural for the job. In addition to installing new machines, which every place seemed to want to have, troubleshooting problems and replacing old records, Harry did collections.
Sam Walman was the owner of South Broad Distributing and soon Harry was working just for him, full time. He liked Harry’s determination. It didn’t matter how long it took him to fix a machine, he never gave up. Harry would get a call when the other guys couldn’t figure out a problem and he never said no. Harry had been working for Sam about a year when he asked for his first raise.
“I don’t see how I can do anything for you right now,” Sam said. “You and Margie are doing OK aren’t you?”
“There’s going to be a baby. I want her to stop working so she doesn’t lose this one.”
“With what I figure you take home, you should be OK.”
“What do you mean by what I take home?” said Harry.
Sam smiled at Harry. His round bald head was shining. He moved it up and down. “Come on Harry. We all know that some of the collection money never makes it back here. It’s expected.”
Harry stared at Sam for a long moment and then he looked down at his shoes and decided not to press the issue. He emptied one of the Dutch Masters Cigar boxes that he used as a tool separator in the trunk of his black Mercury and placed the box on the top shelf of their bedroom closet.
“He told me to steal, Margie.”
“He didn’t really say that, did he?”
“What he said was that he expected that I clipped a few dollars each week. I’ve got making up to do.”
The cigar box filled up quickly and was soon one of two boxes and then one of three. Marjorie was getting nervous. “Grandma says that they are going to put us in jail, Harry.”
“Move the boxes and tell her that I stopped doing it. Use as much of the money as you want to get ready for the baby.”
Harry was rarely at home. On the nights that he didn’t work, he played softball, or went bowling, or shot pool, or played cards. He set up a different cigar box for the money that he won doing those things. Marjorie objected to being left home all the time, but her grandmother told her that some men were just like that and that he treated her well. After she got pregnant, her grandmother told her that it was disgraceful for her to go out when she was in a family way, except when she absolutely had to be seen in public. Aside from attending Tuesday night prayer meetings and Thursday night preparatory services, Margie thought about having her baby and went to church on Sundays.
When she heard another rumor about Harry and Ethel, she went to see her pastor. “I don’t know what to do, Reverend Fritag
. I’m going to have a baby next month. I’m afraid.”
“If you act with faith, Margie, nothing can really go wrong. Remember that the Lord takes care of His own.”
“That didn’t help me last time,” protested Marjorie. She shut her eyes and remembered how the nuns wouldn’t help her, how she bled for so long, how they kept trying to keep a five month old fetus inside of her, how she almost died. She nodded and decided that it was because they were Catholics. “I don’t think that’s going to stop Harry from doing what he’s doing. Ethel and I have been going to Sunday school here together since we were children. Why won’t you help me?”
Fritag was a young minister who was serving in a congregation that belonged to his father. He had seen her coming to church with her grandmother since he was a boy. He knew the stories about their family and could see the lines of truth that were creased into Mrs. Daniels’ face. It wasn’t that Harry was a bad man. Fritag knew him from the neighborhood and recently from the church. Harry was just pure street. “I just don’t think that Ethel has that much to do with it Marjorie. I think that’s the kind of man that Harry is. You’ve got to give him as much freedom as he wants.”
“And what about me?”
“You’ll have your child and your grandmother and your church. Most of all, it’s the only way that you are going to have your husband.
The Newark Summer Softball League started its games at six-thirty in the evening. Sometimes seven games would start at once. It gave Harry an hour to eat and change his clothes. When a game and a work-night came into conflict, he’d trade the weeknight for a weekend night so that he could play. He loved to play third base.
Marjorie went into labor at the beginning of a heat wave in the middle of June. Harry was batting fourth on a team with the guys from Emerson Music. He got the news that she had been taken to the hospital in the fourth inning. Harry already had two hits that night, a screamer into left field and a seeing eye ground ball. He had a dazed look on his face and was thinking about the score and how long it would take to play the last three innings. He thought about who was up next and how to protect the line in the late innings and then he realized that all the time he had been taking his spikes off and getting his stuff into his car.
“What’s wrong, Harry?”
Harry grinned and started the 1947 Mercury. “I guess my wife is really having a baby,” he said and drove away.
Mina Daniels held Ronald Harold Tuck on her lap and rocked him. She silently thanked God for allowing her to see her great-grandson. She knew that things would be better for him than they had been for Marjorie. She had done all that she could do to see to that. She had made terrible mistakes with her children. They had run wild and she hadn’t been strong enough to stop them. But she has raised Marjorie up right and now God had given her a sign of his approval and blessed her with this baby boy. Ronald Tuck’s arrival seemed to make everyone’s life better. Harry and Marjorie were happy again and she had something to make her forget her troubles and look forward to in the mornings. He was the first in the family to be born without trouble since his grandmother, God rest her soul.
“Gram, I need to get the baby dressed. Harry and I are taking him out.”
“Just let me have him and I’ll dress him in that nice blue outfit that Aunt Dottie sent over for him.”
“Where are you taking this baby?” Mina was frowning and rocking faster.
“Harry wants to take him over to see Pop.”
“Why can’t that man come over here like every other decent person?”
“Pop’s strange, Gram. You know that.”
“Well, you’re not taking him out today. It’s too hot.”
“Gram, don’t start. Harry will hit the ceiling.”
“You’re a dirty little skunk, Marjorie. I knew that you and Harry were going to pull something like this.”
“What are you talking about, Gram?”
“Taking a little baby out in the heat! Who ever heard of it?”
Harry was whistling when he opened the door. He saw that Marjorie was dressed. “Are we all set?”
“Gram doesn’t want us to take him.”
Harry was a little confused but the look on Marjorie’s face told him the story. “Gram, nothing is going to happen to him,” he said to her softly.
“Harry Tuck! What do you know about babies?”
Harry reached out and plucked Ronald from her lap. “I know that this one is my son,” he said smiling.
The bicycle shop was more of an empty lot with a shed on it. Robert Tuck was sitting in the shade on a crate.
“Here we are, Pop.”
The old man smiled and put down his knife and stood up. “Let’s have a look.”
Marjorie felt a rush of panic at the thought of the grizzled man with the uncombed hair and the dirty hands wanting to hold her son, but then Harry took the baby and brought him close to Robert Tuck. “Do you want to hold him, Pop?”
Tuck sprang back from a jolt of his own sense of panic. “Don’t know anything about babies, Harry.”
Harry brought the baby up close to Tuck, who smiled but seemed uncomfortable even standing that close to Ronald. He fished into his pocket and then handed Margie a folded up envelope that he had been saving. “Get him something nice, Margie.”
Margie smiled. “Thank you Pop, I sure will.”
“Harry, I’m gonna move on out of here. I got a guy who wants to buy the bikes and I’m thinking that it’s time for me to move up to Adelia’s”
“You need any help, Pop”
“I’m fine. Don’t have much to bring. You know I like to travel light.”
The old man smiled at Harry and Harry looked a little uncomfortable. He stared over at Marjorie and Ronald. “Pop, we probably shouldn’t keep the baby out in the heat for very long.”
Judge Silver sat down in his chair and asked the bailiff to read the next case on the docket. Then he addressed the litigants and their lawyers. “This is a custody hearing to determine who is fit to raise the infant, Ronald Harold Tuck. I want you to know that my decision is final and will be enforced by the full power of the laws of The State of New Jersey. Now I know that the two of you have just gone through a rather unpleasant divorce hearing, but that’s not the issue here today. Gentleman, are you ready to proceed?”
Marjorie’s lawyer and Harry’s lawyer said that they were ready. Since technically Harry was the one trying to win custody of his son, his lawyer spoke first.
“Your Honor, we maintain that Harold Tuck has demonstrated his ability to be the custodial parent for his son. The boy has been living with his father since he was born and is used to the care that his father provides. The simple truth is that Marjorie Tuck abandoned her son when she moved out of their apartment on Gillette Place. Furthermore, she has shown a disregard for her son’s safety by taking him from a park without notice or word to his father. Marjorie Tuck has been seen in the company of a variety of men since the time when she left her husband. Her ability to provide a secure environment for Ronald is questionable at best. Your Honor, my client is a hardworking man. He has been employed as a mechanic by the same company for three years. He was honorably discharged from the Army. He has roots in the community and not even his ex-wife would argue about the love that he has shown for his son. We know that you will agree that he is the better of the two choices.”
The judge nodded and turned towards Marjorie’s lawyer.
“Your Honor, the only way that Harry Tuck has been able to create any kind of suitable environment for this child has been with the assistance of Mrs. Mina Daniels, who is my client’s grandmother. For the last six months, she has stayed on at the apartment for the sole purpose of providing care for the infant Ronald. She had lived in the hope that Harry and Marjorie could resolve their differences. The recent divorce decree has put an end to that hope and Mrs. Daniels has informed me that she intends to take up residence with her grand-daughter at 780 Broadway. A child’s natural place is with his mother, unless she has proven herself to be unfit. The only person here who has proved himself unfit is Harold Tuck. He is an adulterer, Your Honor. He was raised in an orphanage and has no idea of what family life should be like. We ask that you consider what this baby’s life could possibly be like without the care of his mother and great-grandmother.”
Judge Silver nodded again. “Well, what about it, Mr. Tuck? How could you provide a suitable environment for a young child?”
Harry looked up at the judge with surprise. It was one of the first times that anyone had asked him much of anything since this whole mess had started. “I’d hire someone to come in and stay with him while I was working.”
The judge leaned forward. “Do you think that anyone that you could hire could care for him with the love and concern of a mother and a great-grandmother?”
“I love him, Your Honor. He’s my son. I’d always make sure that he was taken care of.”
“I see.” The Judge turned his head towards Marjorie. “Mrs. Tuck?”
Marjorie met his eyes with hers and stood up. “Yes,Your Honor?”
“How do you intend to provide for the care of your son?”
“Your Honor, I was taking care of my grandmother long before I ever heard of Harry Tuck. I’m glad that he loves his son. If he has shown the same respect for me when we were together, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Harry wasn’t letting that one go by. “I do love you, Margie! Haven’t I been begging you to come back for months?”
Judge Silver tapped his gavel firmly. “Mr. Tuck, be quiet. You were given a chance to speak. Mrs. Tuck, I told you at the start that the issues between you and your ex-husband have already been resolved. Now how is it that you intend to support your son?”
“I work as a PBX operator, Your Honor.”
“And how long have you held this job?”
“Only two months, but I’ve always worked and I always will. I don’t know…” here she felt things slipping away from her and began to sob, “… what I would do if you took him away from me.”
“The court is inclined to agree with you, Mrs. Tuck.” The judge turned his head back towards Harry, “Mr. Tuck do you have any other evidence to support the claim that she is an unfit mother?”
Harry hated the sound of the words. Maybe he and Margie couldn’t get along, but nobody had the right to stand up in public and say that either one of them was unfit. “No, Judge, I’d just do a better job with him.”
“The Court does not agree with you, Mr. Tuck. We have found that except under extraordinary circumstances, children have more of a chance to thrive with their mothers.”
The words bit into Harry. He stared down at the wooden chair leg and his polished shoes and knew what would come next.
“Accordingly, we grant custody of the infant, Ronald Tuck, to his mother. We order support payments in the amount of fifteen dollars a week.”
“I want to give twenty,” said Harry. He saw Marjorie look at him with her huge green eyes. The look was sad. Then he saw her turn her head back towards the judge.
“Do we have anything else?” said Judge Silver.
“No, Your Honor,” said the lawyers.
Ronald Tuck sat in the front seat of a locked car. He was hunched against the passenger side door. He was watching the entrance to the Clover Leaf Lounge and counting the cars that passed by the place. His Dad was inside fixing a machine. If the neighborhood wasn’t too bad, Harry would bring his son into the place to watch him work. The Clover Leaf Lounge wasn’t a good stop for Ronald.
The place had three pieces of equipment: a juke box, pool table, and a bowling machine. It was the bowling machine that was causing Harry trouble. He had been telling Sam for a month that they needed to bring the piece in and recondition it, but as long as it was making two hundred dollars a week, it wasn’t moving. This was Harry’s second time there this week. The work area in back of the machine was poorly lit and hard to get at. Harry had to climb over the alley portion of the machine each time he needed to get around to the back panel. If he had a partner with him, he could just pull the piece away from the wall, but Harry always worked alone on weekends.
Harry could feel the tension every time he stepped into the all Black club. Newark was changing. Almost three quarters of his stops were in Puerto Rican or Black spots. He could feel eyes on him when he did collections. He had started to carry a gun with his other tools in the trunk of his car.
“Hey man, how come you can step on the machine every time you come in here and we ain’t allowed to step on the machine?”
Harry could smell the alcohol breath before he pulled his head out of the back panel. “What’d you say?”
“I said, how come you can step on the machine and I can’t step on the machine?” The man was bending over the alley, trying to get a look at what Harry was doing back there.
“Because I’m trying to fix the damn thing.” Harry stared out at the black face with the woolen cap pulled down over the eyebrows. It was eleven o’clock on a Saturday morning and this guy was already staggering. Harry figured that the guy was still on a binge from the night before. With disgust, he thought to himself that the guy probably hadn’t finished drinking his way through his entire paycheck yet but that he would at some point over the weekend.
The drunk weaved over to the bartender and repeated his question. The bartender said that he didn’t know and walked over to where the man had been sitting at the bar. There was still some beer in the glass but his shot glass was empty. There was still some money on the bar. The rule at the Clover Leaf Lounge was to serve ‘em until they were broke and then get rid of them. The man wandered up and down the bar incessantly asking his question. Finally he came back to Harry. “Hey Mister?”
Harry pulled his head out of the back panel again. “How come you can step on the machine and I can’t step on the machine?”
Harry brought himself further out from the miles of wire and relays. His ears had gotten red. “How about this? If you step on the machine, I’m gonna break your ass.”
Heads turned from the bar. The bartender reached underneath to get a grip n his baseball bat. Somebody laughed in a gravelly voice and one of the customers let out a soft whistle.
The man spun back towards the bar. “Did you hear what this white motherfucker said to me? Did everyone hear what this white motherfucker said?” Heads nodded and then turned back away from the drunk. Harry planted his feet and waited. Suddenly the drunk lunged and made a grab for him. Harry swung his aluminum flashlight hard and caught him full on the side of the head. There was a cracking sound. The drunk went down on the spot and his cap rolled onto the floor. A small pool of blood began to gather by his ear. Harry closed the back of the machine up and locked it. Two guys came over from the bar and lifted the mumbling man up and carried him to a table in the back. He was mumbling something about how someone had come up in back of him and hit him with a baseball bat.
“I’ll come back in the morning and finish up the machine before you open up.”
“What am I supposed to do about tonight? Saturday night is our busiest time.”
“That’s your problem now,” said Harry. “You should have gotten this guy outta here as soon as he started with me.” Harry knew that he was on firm ground. Sam had told them what to do if they were bothered. Harry wished that Ronald wasn’t waiting outside in the car in a neighborhood like this. “Put up a sign so nobody loses any money on it.”
Ronald’s count had gone over a hundred more than twice by the time Harry got back to the car.
When the boy saw his father’s face, his heart began beating faster. Now they could talk again. “How’d it go Dad?”
“These people are animals. They’re drunk at eleven o’clock in the morning.
“Maybe it’s not their fault, Dad.”
“Don’t tell me that,” said Harry with an anger that jolted the boy’s head. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.
The car was quiet for a long time while Harry tried to compose himself and Ron wondered about what he had done wrong.
Harry was feeling better by the time that he parked the car in front of the shop. “Let’s get some lunch,” he said. He saw his son smile and nod but felt a twinge of guilt for hollering at him. He told himself that the boy had to learn the truth about the way that the world was.
When they were at the shop, they had lunch at the Lincoln Pharmacy. They sat at the counter and looked through the sports page together.
“You see that, Dad,” said Ron pointing excitedly. “Mantle’s batting .320.”
“He stinks,” said Harry laughing.
“How can you say that? He’s the best player in baseball.”
“In a pig’s eye. He just gets headlines because he’s in New York and he’s a Yankee.”
“I don’t understand why you hate the Yankees do much.”
“Because they buy good players from teams that aren’t as rich as they are.”
Ron launched into a long defense of his team. He pointed out that Mantle had never played for another team.
Harry sipped his coffee and grinned. He might have his mother’s face, but he’s got a mind like mine, thought Harry.
“Dad, do you know what Mom says?” Harry stopped grinning. “She says that you used to like the Yankees until you couldn’t get anybody to bet against them.”
Two of the guys from the shop who were sitting at the counter with them began to laugh. Ron looked at them and then quickly back to his father, hoping that he hadn’t said anything that would make him mad again. When he saw that Harry was laughing too, he relaxed.
“Your mother’s right,” said Harry. “But they stink anyway.”
Ron grinned broadly and began to explain all over again about why they were a good team, but Harry told him to finish his chopped liver sandwich. Ron didn’t understand why the men laughed at that comment too.
After lunch, they were back out on the road. Ron was used to the routine. He held the flashlight while Harry worked on the jukebox in the nameless Puerto Rican luncheonette where the pungent smells made him dizzy. Then they worked on a pool table at The Brothers Lounge where Ron always wondered who the Brothers were and Harry disgustedly pulled debris out of one of the pockets into which it had been shoved.
“Do we have time for a game, Dad?”
“Rack ‘em up,” said Harry.
“What kind of a spot are you gonna give me?”
“What do you want to play for?” said Harry.
“I’ll give you the break and your first miss,” said Harry.
Ron was tense. This was his chance to show his father that he had learned how to play the game. He was better than all of his friends, but this was different. Harry watched the determination on Ron’s face as he drew the cue back and struck the ball as hard as he could.
Ron had the low balls based on the one that he sank off the break. Harry watched his son trying to read the table and saw that the boy hadn’t really learned the game’s strategy. Maybe that was better. If he didn’t have a good taste of it in his mouth from early on, maybe he would leave it alone. But then Ron sank a couple of shots and Harry saw that the kid had a stroke that revealed several hours of practice. He beat his son two games straight and took the boy’s dollar.
Back in the car, Harry said, “Was that all the money that you had?”
“Why did you bet it?”
“I wanted to see you play your best game, Dad.”
“Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea, Ron.”
“It was worth it. You beat me fair.”
“You shouldn’t gamble what you can’t afford to lose.”
Ron knew that his father wouldn’t give him back the money. When Ron wanted to bet, his father never returned what he lost. It was dark when Harry dropped the boy off in front of the large apartment building. “I’ve got two more calls. Tell your mother that I couldn’t stop and give this to her.” He handed Ron a check for twenty dollars.
“Am I going to see you next weekend?”
“I don’t know. Probably on Sunday. I’ll call.
Harry waited until he saw that the boy was inside and then drove off. He had two more stops and an hour and a half before he could call in for the last time. If there were no emergencies, he would be done with the fourteen hour day that was a part of his week on three nights. He could put one of the stops off but it was probably better to get them both done and call in when he was done.
It was a bright July day in the summer of 1969. Harry had long since remarried and had two more children. He had buried Robert Tuck and named his younger son after him. He had even seen William Brandt one last time. That had been particularly unpleasant but turned out rewarding because the old bastard had finally put him in touch with one of his brothers. Now his children would have a real uncle and a real aunt and cousins that came from his side of the family.
Harry had joined The Glen Ridge country Club and played golf there every weekend. His friends owned businesses and were large company executives. Harry successfully hustled them for the cost of his membership plus a bit each year. He owned stock that he learned about through tips that he picked up at the club and was now about to buy a shore house. Between what he made on the golf course and the ever growing pile of cigar boxes that no one else knew about now and what he made hustling cards in the locker room there was always extra money.
He sat outside the clubhouse with the rest of the foursome that had just finished the round and were having drinks. Two of the wives and some of their unattached friends joined the group. Harry had been a member of the club for five years and had just been asked to join the exclusive membership committee. Harry noticed that the woman on his right was wearing rings on her toes.
“Let’s face it,” she said with an expansive sweep of her arm, “life’s been pretty good to all of us.”
Harry smiled to himself and sipped his drink.