The kitchen door opened and there was Dad, covered with sleet, teeth chattering, lips blue, a murky puddle forming on the clean linoleum beneath his boots, exhausted from hours of wrangling a huge sheet metal sign into place atop a factory roof. After he took a hot bath, Mom mounted the stepladder to the pantry’s top shelf and retrieved a bottle of Four Roses. She cracked the seal, carefully measured half a shot, then mixed it into a steaming cup of tea. Dad stirred in honey, sipped the brew, then set the cup down and handed Mom the empty shotglass. "Straight," he croaked, his voice rough as emery cloth. Mom gave him a look, horror mixed with astonishment, but he held the glass out until she poured. Pinching his nostrils between grease-blackened fingers, he swallowed the whisky, gulped down more tea, and tottered off to bed.
That sort of thing happened no more than twice during my childhood — the only times that I ever saw my father drink hard liquor. Later, he went into the scrap business. Even in the dead of winter he braved the frozen white sheets billowing in from Lake Michigan to prowl Chicago’s streets and alleys, then brought his finds to the junkyard. He’d sit around a glowing pot-bellied stove in the office dickering with old Mr. Rushicoff over prices; he always accepted a grubby tumbler with a splash of slivovitz to seal their bargain. He raised it to his lips — but never did he imbibe. At weddings or bar mitzvahs Dad took only a glass of wine, which he never finished.
The whisky bottles hidden high in our pantry were testimony to my parents' youth, to the hunger of surviving the Depression. Neither could bear to discard anything of value. Every year at Christmas, a few of the janitors, machinists, foremen and purchasing agents from whom Dad bought scrap presented him with a fifth of Four Roses, Seagram's Seven, or some other bargain booze. And every few years, when we moved to another apartment, Dad gave those sealed bottles to neighbors and to the men he hired to help wrestle our furniture onto his truck.
We were not teetotalers. Friday nights, before making the blessing over bread, Mom poured each of us children a thimble-sized cup from a bottle of Manischewitz wine, and after reciting Kiddush, we sipped it. No one ever asked for seconds.
Even when we had visitors, I doubt that it occurred to my parents to offer anything stronger than coffee or soda pop. The one possible exception was Uncle Maeshie, my father's uncle, a fruit peddler who usually arrived for Saturday night dinner reeking of schnapps. Mom always locked the pantry before he arrived.
Yet such aversion to strong drink was rare in our neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, where on scorching summer evenings whole families sat out on porches and stoops drinking beer by the quart. Come winter, many indulged a taste for something harder; as the snow melted during the spring thaw, amber whisky bottles emerged on sidewalks and the narrow strips of weedy earth that passed for lawns.
The neighborhood was also dotted with saloons, including one on the corner of our street. I was forbidden to set foot even on the sidewalk in front of it; when Mom sent me on some errand in that direction, she always reminded me to cross to the other side of the street. This was hardly necessary: I would have gone blocks out of my way to avoid passing within sight of those who idled in front of that tavern, pitching pennies, smoking, and making rude remarks to passers-by.
The youngest of this corps was my special nemesis, young Richie Davis, who could always find a reason to beat me up or some new way to humiliate me. Two or three years my senior, roaring toward puberty, Richie was lean and fair-haired and his clothing always seemed either too small or too big.
Richie haunted the tavern sidewalks, but his father was usually inside it. Once in awhile Mr. Davis, as dark as his son was fair, came to the door to holler for Richie, a slurred shout that ranged far down the block. Less frequently, Richie stuck his head inside to call to his father, who usually responded with curses. I was never sure what this was all about — but Mom knew. One day, under my persistent questioning, she said that it had to do with Mr. Davis, who held no regular job, drinking up all the money that his wife earned by scrubbing toilets in a downtown office building, and from taking in washing.
"That poor woman," was all that Mom would say, shaking her head. "Be glad that your own father doesn't drink."
"Why does Mr. Davis drink?" I asked, curious as ever.
"Why does any man drink?" she replied. "Because they are unhappy with their lives. Because they are too lazy to work and too stupid to know that they are lazy. And always their wives are just as stupid and afraid to leave them," she added.
When Mr. Davis was not in the tavern he was often in Jackson Park, a block to the east, and one of my favorite place. I liked to play Indian. I fashioned snares, laid mock campfires, built bows and arrows from twigs and limbs. Mr. Davis liked to sit under a shady tree chasing whisky with beer until he passed out.
That's what he was doing one summer afternoon when the sky suddenly darkened. Mothers, including mine, shouted for their children.
I scampered home as cold, wind-driven raindrops soaked my clothes and little balls of flying ice stung my neck and arms.
I was halfway up the back porch steps when the whole sky lit up. A gigantic thunderclap filled my ears. It seemed to go on forever. Dogs howled in terror. A strange odor filled my nostrils — and as the echoes died away, I heard the long, sickening sound of timber tearing.
Mr. Davis never knew what hit him. He was a smoking, blackened cinder before the tall tree against which he had been resting split in two and came crashing down.
A few days later something was going on over at the nearby Catholic church: Through my bedroom window I saw Richie Davis, swathed in a new suit far too large for him, being dragged down the street toward St. Gelasius by his mother.
I never saw either of them again, and when I asked Mom what had happened, she pulled a face. "God punished Mr. Davis for his excessive drinking," she said.
I believed that for a long time.
When in early manhood I finally summoned the courage to tempt fate with my first taste of whisky, as it burned its way down my gullet all I could think of was the crash of that lightning bolt and the mingled odors of ozone and the burnt flesh that had been Mr. Davis.
Copyright © 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.