~pick ‘em up & lay ‘em down~
~gimme a smoke & a double shot~
~give the kid a coke~
~I am a western man~
~a badass smokin’ gun~
~we gotta get outa here~
~find some money~
~twenty dollar bill~
~learn ‘em when they’re young~
~they will never forget~
~Hitler & bad Daddy~
~especially if they want to~
Eight o’clock in the morning. There were thirteen people present in the bar; me, Daddy and the bartender, some strong ladies with tattoos on their arms drinking and playing pool. Oh yeah, and Daddy’s best friend, Ringo. One of the strong ladies paid for an eye-opener for everyone in the bar. That means a glass of beer and a shot of whiskey, what they call boiler makers. Being a kid, I got a coke and a bag of chips. That’s an eye opener I appreciated.
One of the strong ladies came over, gave my arm a squeeze. “What a big strong boy you are. You look just like your Daddy. What are you gonna be when you grow up?” She smiled at Daddy.
People in bars always say the same things to kids. The answers they expect reminded me of church folks. I learned with church folks to always say that I was a Christian and had been saved. When I was with Daddy at the bar, I knew I was expected to say, “I’m gonna grow up and be a roofer just like my Daddy.” In either case, I had little idea what my reply meant, just that it was expected of me. Knowing no other way out, I always complied with their expectations. I knew better than to get crossways with adults no matter who they were.
Ringo was laughing and joking with the ladies. He usually had a big smile on his face. His voice sounded like sweet thick syrup. Now I understood why Daddy was so drunk last night. He had been with Ringo, who told everyone he was a ‘Jack of all trades’. I figured that must mean he was good at a lot of things like talking and drinking whiskey. He was very good at these two things. So was Daddy.
Ringo had showed up at our house at seven in the morning. I heard his loud laughing voice and peeked my head out of the bedroom.
“Get up, youngster!” he grinned. He favored me with an exaggerated wink. When Ringo laughed, his whole face laughed with him. “Come on out,” he urged.
“You gon’ go with me and your Daddy and make yourself some spendin’ money.”
I closed the door, tiptoed to the corner of the room where I had left my shoes and socks. I sure didn’t feel like going with Ringo and Daddy. It had been a long night. Thinking about last night opened my eyes. I wondered if Momma had figured out a way to put Daddy’s billfold back in his pocket.
By the time I entered the kitchen, Daddy was sitting at the table rubbing his bloodshot eyes. Marty Robbins was singing the ‘West Texas Town of Laredo’ song. Momma was mumbling under her breath and fixing a pot of coffee.
“Carroll, have you seen my billfold?” Daddy’s question landed like a bomb in my brain. It literally stopped me in my tracks. “Tommy?” Daddy shot an inquisitive glance in my direction.
“Good morning, Daddy,” I said.
“So hi-de-ho, you guys,” Ringo chimed in. “We gon’ make us some foldin’ money t’day or what? Oh yeah, I can feel it in my ol’ bones. We gon’ do real good!”
Momma moved over near the table and lit two Pall Malls. She handed one to Daddy, took a deep drag on her cigarette. She spoke to Daddy in her early morning smoking voice.
“I’ll have to look for your billfold. It probably fell out of your pocket in the bedroom or something. You were in pretty bad shape last night. I...”
“I know what I did last night,” Daddy said irritably, “I always know what I’m doing. I’ll look for the damned thing myself!” He stood up and ran his fingers through his hair. He kept it cut short but it was just long enough that it stuck out every which way in clumps and spikes until he did his morning constitutional and greased it down with Wild Root hair oil. “I’ll be ready in a few minutes,” he said to Ringo. “I just gotta comb my hair and find my billfold.”
He went into the bathroom and closed the door. Ringo slapped a ten dollar bill on the table. He smiled at me with his big teeth.
“Tommy boy! How ‘bout you go down to that store and fetch your Uncle Ringo a couple packs of Camels? Get a box of doughnuts for yourself and your brothers and sisters.” He glanced at Momma. “Carroll, how you fixed?”
Momma stared up at the ceiling. She put a hand over her puffy face. It looked to me like she was about to start crying.
“I’m not fixed,” she said quietly, “I am damned near and finally broken.”
Ringo picked up the ten, reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a twenty.
“Get the Camels and doughnuts. Pick up some Pall Malls and some breakfast stuff for your Ma.” He spoke in a hushed whisper for once, smiled his easy smile and gave me a little pat on the back. “Go on now, boy. When you come back, just bring me my cigarettes. Leave the rest of the stuff.” He paused and looked me in the eye. “Well, you know.”
Momma shook her head.
“You don’t have to do that, Ringo. We’re doing all right here and if he finds out.” She nodded her head toward the bathroom.
Ringo tossed me his a-okay wink and out the door I went. It is amazing what money can do. Twenty dollars, wow! My feet felt like they never even touched the ground. I glided on air those six blocks to the corner store. I bought coffee for Momma, real Folger’s coffee and eggs and milk, dry cereal and sugar. I felt guilty as I snagged two bottles of Royal Crown Cola and a bag of salted Spanish peanuts for myself. I loved to drop the peanuts right in the bottle and drink them with the cold pop. When I finished paying, there was two dollars and eighty cents change. I added fifteen nickel Hershey bars to my purchase and asked for a separate bag for those and my pop and peanuts.
I ran all the way home. Daddy and Ringo weren’t outside yet so I took the time to stash my stuff in the back of Daddy’s truck under a shingle wrapper. I threw shingle scraps on top of it so it wouldn’t blow away and no one would see it. I removed the doughnuts and Camels from the other bag. There was a pile of coats in the corner by the front door. I hid what remained in the bag underneath them then entered the kitchen with a big smile on my face. I handed Ringo his Camels. He told me to keep the change.
Daddy was seated at the table examining his wallet. His hands were shaking and his jaw was set.
“I know I had over eighty dollars in here,” he said to no one in particular. “Carroll, are you sure ...”
“Tommy, Tommy, Tommy,” Ringo said to Daddy. “It was a long night. We had us some fun, remember? Stop worrying about twenty bucks.” He made a grand display of rubbing his hands together. Watching him, I half expected magic dust to fly from between them. “We gon’ do good t’day! I can feel it in my bones! Jus’ finish your coffee, Tommy boy, an’ let’s go out an’ see what we can do ‘bout relievin’ some o’ those citizens of a little bit o’ that money they’re sittin’ on!”
Daddy put his wallet in his pocket.
“Okay,” he said reluctantly, “I just hate to think somebody cheated me out of twenty dollars.”
“Spilt milk,” Ringo laughed. “We got us a bran’ new chance ri’chere, damned if we don’t!” He blessed the room with one of his best winks. “C’mon L’il Tom. You ‘n’ me, we get the truck ready while your good ol’ Daddy finishes his coffee.”
Ringo and I gathered the five gallon metal buckets full of Daddy’s tools and carried them out the back door. In the rush and confusion to go, I forgot to kiss Momma good-bye and whisper where I had hidden the bag full of groceries and smokes. That would haunt me all day, like maybe she wouldn’t be there when we returned home; and who could blame her?
“I wanna be a roofer just like my Daddy,” I said to the lady with her shirt sleeves rolled up to display the dragon tattoos on her biceps.
Daddy held his hand out and examined it. He was almost steady, just about ready, a twitch here and there, but no longer shaking like a leaf.
“One more and I’m set,” he said to Ringo.
Ringo twirled a finger in the air.
“Set us up one more time ri’chere,” he said to the bartender. “Ah hell, make it all around the house!”
Three rounds later, we opened the door and stepped out into the light of day. I didn’t much enjoy bars, strangers’ fingers tweaking my cheeks while I stared at the bottom of Daddy’s glass of beer, wishing for the power to make it empty and more, the power to make it so he wouldn’t have it refilled. I had four bags of potato chips to take with me and that I was thankful for. When Daddy worked with Ringo, we hardly ever stopped for lunch.
Ringo was full of magic, especially when it came to talking to rich old ladies. Daddy drove the truck to a fancy neighborhood with big brick houses. Ringo went jauntily up to the front door of houses and, with a big smile on his face, either rang the bell or knocked politely. When someone answered, he asked for the man or lady of the house, performed his big wink for the ladies and told them surely they were too young and could they please go get their mother. It sounds corny and trite in the telling but Ringo was just the guy to pull it off. The world was his circus and he was its ringmaster. Seventy-year-old women giggled and flirted with him, flattered by his grand display.
Occasionally a man would be home. Ringo was usually more serious with men of the house.
“What a beautiful home you have here, Sir. Were you aware that pigeon droppings actually deteriorate those expensive wood shingles? And say, could you take a moment and step out in the yard with me? Have a look for yourself. Those twigs and leaves in the gutters will rot right through the bottom and water will back up and leak through the soffits. Look here, the flashing has deteriorated from the chimney and the top layers of bricks are just sitting there.
Well, looky there, you got one missing. The mortar has worn away from between them. Wouldn’t take too big a storm to knock them down. They could harm someone or fall into the chimney and block the flow of smoke. Lucky for you, we’re in the neighborhood today. As a matter of fact, we were just preparing to do some much-needed repairs and preventative maintenance on one of your neighbors’ houses.” At this juncture Ringo shuffled papers on his clipboard. “Let’s see ... he’s a Mister ... hmmm, I know I have it here. My associates must have the work order at the truck.”
The person he was talking to would usually volunteer their neighbors’ names in an effort to be helpful to this friendly workman. Then Ringo would say, “Yes, yes, I got it ri’chere and I thank you for the reminder. We got a stack of work orders today but there’s two of us and our apprentice. I won’t take any more of your time now. We have to get to work. We’ll be right here working in the neighborhood if you need us.”
When Ringo spoke to the person in the neighboring house, he addressed them by the name offered up in the above conversation and mentioned that the crew was performing important and necessary work next door. This gave him instant credibility and created a sense of urgency, also implementing a generous helping of the “Keeping Up With the Joneses” psychology. He was a man who knew people and had developed his spiel.
Meanwhile, Daddy rattled ladders and assembled buckets and pails on the tailgate of his truck. I said a quick prayer that Daddy wouldn’t find my bag full of goodies. Daddy handed me a bucket and told me to go around to the alley. I was to look in backyards for sand boxes. If I found one close to the alley and, if it looked as if no one was home, I was to fill the bucket with sand and return to the truck. He had a bag of cement and would need sand to mix it with when Ringo lined them up with tuck point jobs. This was a regular routine and it bothered me that I was stealing sand from little kids, even if they were rich. Worse than my conscience was the fear that one day I would get caught. I could just see myself on the front page of ‘The Rocky Mountain News’: ‘Sand Thief Convicted and Given Life Sentence’.
When we were between jobs, Ringo took me to the door with him. He considered it just plain silly that Daddy couldn’t get the whole ‘gift o’ gab’ thing and was determined that the son would ‘learn’ it and make up for his father’s shortcomings. Ringo was gifted and wasn’t entirely aware of it. I figured if he didn’t drink so much he could have been a lawyer or a judge, president maybe. He was a real snake charmer.
Looking back on it, other than the purloined sand, I like to believe we were fairly honest gypsies. Pigeon shit really does eat through just about anything and the kerosene/tar combination we mopped out of our buckets did indeed deter squirrels and pigeons from hanging out on the roof. None of us had any idea how long it was effective and, from my point of view a couple of scores of years later, I’m certain it wasn’t environmentally friendly. Daddy and I performed most of the roof repair and Ringo tuck pointed the chimneys. He said he was an ol’ brick man from way back.
The nicest thing about working with Ringo was that the crew usually made good money and no one had to work too hard. He and Daddy shared expenses and split what was left. On this particular day they each made a hundred and fifty dollars and gave me the twelve dollars left over. I wasn’t sure if Ringo some way knew that Daddy usually ‘borrowed’ my part but he usually slipped me a couple of silver dollars on the side. This was always given with a conspiratorial wink that lifted his lip just like Elvis. “These ri ‘chere is jus’ between you ‘n me, kid, oh-ke-doke?”
The worst thing about working with Ringo was that we always started and ended the work day by going to the bar. Ringo and Daddy were known in bars far and wide. On this particular work day, we ended up in a place near 20th Avenue and Federal Boulevard. It was called the ‘Eagle’s Nest’. There were two large cement eagles guarding the front door. They had fierce eyes and wings poised for flight. I got to know them real well as this was one of Daddy’s ‘reg’lar h’ants’. He usually allowed me to go out and roam a bit if it was daylight. I was also assigned to watch his truck so no one stole his tools or ladders.
Ringo came across one of his ‘gals’ and was playing the bowling machine and Daddy was playing a game with some other men. I didn’t understand it all but it seemed like they were guessing or gambling on something and whoever won got a bag of white jaw breaker candies. Some of the men just gave the candy to Daddy because they knew he had children who would be glad to eat it.
©2016 artwork, music & words
conceived by & property of
Tom (WordWulf) Sterner 2016©