“water lilies” @ yesbut
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Why Sarge Throws Freight
Once Lily was into her second bowl of chicken soup it was clear she’d shaken off the silly willies. Watching her regain her balance as she ate, Sarge held back from asking her what she’d learned on her venture to St. Syms hospital. She surprised him by opening up the conversation herself. “I didn’t mention this to the others because just telling them about the National Guard seemed more than enough to scare them. The reason St.Syms was so crazy is that they were dealing with a lot of people from the nursing home. The roof collapsed there some time this morning. It was really ugly in the hospital. Not enough beds, not enough nurses. Hardly any doctors because so many live in M- and can’t get here. They want to take people out by helicopters to other hospitals, but they’ve got all sorts of problems with that too.” She drank down half of her soup and gasped in relief. “You have no idea how much I needed that. Thanks for having it warmed up, Sarge.”
“No problem. All I had to do was turn on the heat when I saw you coming back.” He handed her the thick piece of bread he’d just smeared several tablespoons of butter over. “What else did you learn? Don’t worry about scaring me. I can take the bad news like a wolf man.”
“I have no doubt.” Lily took as big a bite out of the buttered rye bread as her mouth could handle. While chewing it she considered which information was worth sharing at the moment. A grand ranting about the National Guards was very appealing , but still fresh in her mind were the frightened reactions of JJ and her med crew to just learning of their presence at the hospital. She decided to stick to sharing basic information. “Okay. Here goes: National Guard is still trying to get some main roads open and the train tracks cleared. Over half the city is without electricity. Mother Nature gifted us with about twelve feet of snow, more in some areas. So, it could be worse here. There was a massive water main break on the south side that hasn’t been reported on the news. I don’t even want to think what that’s like for the people who live there. I saw several buildings with caved in roofs along the hill road that drops down to St. Syms. Basically, it sounds to me like Falls is a total disaster area right now.” She held up a finger indicating a need for a short pause then drank the rest of the soup broth straight from her bowl to wash down the bread.
“More bread?” Sarge pointed to the slices of rye with the butter knife.
“Not yet. Thanks.” Lily shook her head then resumed her report. ” Oh and I heard about this from the people in the ER waiting room. Apparently when part of Main Street was opened just enough for people to get to that large grocery store where Main intersects with 7th Street, you know which one I mean–the one with the funny chicken sign?” She waited for Sarge to respond before continuing.
“Chicken sign?” Sarge thought for a moment. “You mean the store with the little fried chicken carry out place to the right as soon as you walk inside?”
“That’s the one. They opened up for business when the street was plowed. Their entire food stock was cleared out in a couple of hours. Nothing else has been delivered yet and no other store has been able to open up so far. So food is another issue for a lot of people in Falls. I am so glad Esther made sure all of ‘sun rise’s’ pantries were stuffed to the max before this wave of storms hit. Otherwise, a lot of folks here in the Flats would be in a world of hurt. When I told her that today, she said she was just paying attention to what she heard her bones whispering to her. But she was pleased to know someone had noticed what she’d done and how important it has turned out to be. Beans, rice and canned goods aren’t fancy food but it is food. Not everyone thinks like Ricardo and I do about laying in a deep food cache for winter ahead of time.”
Sarge laughed. “No, most folks certainly do not.” He glanced at her huge fridge with the freeze that comprised half its size. “But after this winter I bet a lot more people will be. I don’t even want to think what you’d be like without breakfast every morning.”
“Oh I’m fine until I get a whiff of pancakes.”
“Or eggs and toast.”
“Yeah. I just get a little focused on eating breakfast, that’s all. It’s like a wake up, fuel me up kind of thing.”
“Huh, huh. Right. Food fuel for the day. Okay.”
“Anyway, that’s my state of Falls report. How about you? How did the snow clearing crews do today? Any more roof jumping contests? Hmm? Have some folks learned their lessons about flying between buildings?”
His face flushing, Sarge smiled with embarrassment. “Hey, we just need better traction for getting up to speed before taking the leap. Some decent sun on those roofs to cut down the slick factor and we’re in business.”
“Sun comes out enough to dry those roofs and there won’t be as much snow to break your falls either. You and Little George better factor that into your traction action plans.” She leaned her elbows on the table and held her chin in her hands. “So did the crews get to all the worst places?”
“Yes, we did. Everyone’s feeling it too. We need some more muscle to keep going at the same rate. Especially if more heavy snow falls. It would be good to rotate people on and off for shifts and days. But today it went pretty good, all things considered. No cave-ins yet. From the sound of things on the news and what you said, I think it’s pretty unlikely any help would be coming fast if something collapsed in the Flats. I don’t even want to think about that scenario in some of those buildings up where Percy Two lives. There are just too many people living in too little space that wasn’t safe to begin with. Someone has been making big bucks off of bribes to look the other way on some deadly serious structural code violations. Even in good weather conditions, those apartments are health hazards. From what I’ve seen, Rosa picked the best house possible to buy. It’s got the usual problems for any building its age, but nothing that can’t be fixed. And it is safe to live in. Ricardo has done a great job with the electrical wiring. That’s major plus right there. There are very few others I can say the same thing about.”
Lily sat back in her chair and considered what she wanted to ask Sarge and how to ask in a way that wouldn’t offend him. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and decided to go for broke. “You talk with a lot of confidence about these buildings and codes for a guy who throws freight for a living. Why is that, Sarge?”
Lacking a cigarette to occupy his hands, Sarge put his soup spoon into motion and wondered how in hell, Lily had managed to target one of his own mental minefields. He played with the spoon so long without speaking that Lily began to doubt he’d answer. Then he coughed and raised his eyes to stare at her across the table. “Lily, please remember that you asked the question that I’m going to try to answer in at least a halfway meaningful manner. I’m thinking you have a good reason for wanting an answer. So here goes.”
His left hand began pushing his unruly hair away from his face while his right kept the spoon moving. “I throw freight because it pays well enough to save up some serious cash. I throw freight here in Falls because it’s one of the few businesses between Falls and M- and the surrounding areas that allows me to be completely out from under my father’s rather large thumb. The guy who owns the docks in Falls, Oscar, has no love for my dear old dad. So I work for someone who doesn’t play a certain sort of ball. That is very good for my personal agendas.” Sarge broke eye contact with Lily and watched the spoon fly over, under and between his fingers until he resumed talking.
“In keeping with the whole freight motif; I throw freight where I do and why I do because when I was seventeen I got myself into a world of trouble with my dad and a hell of a lot of other people in the construction business. You see, my dad had, f’ that, he still has, his own agenda regarding making me in his own image so that I can pick up exactly where he ends and keep certain balls in motion. With that in his mind, when I turned sixteen he took me out of school in order for me to do a lot of apprentice work for everything – carpentery, plumbing, electrical, cement,–you name it, I learned it. I wasn’t thrilled about leaving school because I had my own ideas about my life. But at the time it seemed like there was no choice except to lay low, do what the old man wanted, then duck and run first chance I could when I turned eighteen. Feel like you’re getting a whole lot more than you asked for, Lily?”
She shook her head as she sat twirling her long braid while listening to his reply. “Nope. I think I’m getting about exactly what I asked for, Sarge. Go on, my ears are wide open and receiving.”
“Okay then, the Lady wants the drama to continue. And so it shall.” He briefly looked out the kitchen window at the falling snow. “I decided that I may as well spend the next two years learning and doing everything just as best as I could. Because I’m a dumbass kid who thinks if I do everything right by the book, I’ll at least be creating the impression that I’m going to toe the old man’s line. Here’s where some solid irony starts creeping into my little drama. I’m putting in my time on a building project in M- down near City Hall and I, thinking this was a good way to show I was keeping my nose to the grindstone, start checking the building specs against the code books. At first I’m doubting my own ability to add two and two. Then I realize this is not so. I can add just fine. And multiply and divide too. Hot damn, who knew? I take it into my head that the guy running this building project needs to know what I’ve discovered about the building specs being so far off target that they wouldn’t slide right if Noah’s flood fell on them.”
Sarge met Lily’s eyes and kept eye contact as he spoke. “So I go to do my good deed. The guy lets me say my piece and even show him on the blueprints what’s going on. I mean, he let me just go on and on for about an hour until I’ve dumped my entire load. He tells me to call my dad and tell him to come down. I do. Dad arrives and they have a little discussion by themselves. Fifteen minutes later I’m taking the worst f’n beat down of my entire life basically because I had no damn right to stick my nose where it did not belong. Now, I’m downright confused out of my mind at that point. I’m so confused I start fighting back like there’s no tomorrow. We wind up dishing it out to each other right in front of an entire construction crew. To make matters worse, I’m not just using my fists, my mouth is running at top speed about the whole f’n business. And I’m running it very loud and very clear so that about a hundred guys hear every word and there is nothing to second guess.”
Watching his facial expressions subtly change with the content of his speech, Lily sensed her home people vibes murmuring soft and low, edging into her awareness yet not distracting her attention from the man sitting across from her. Focusing on hearing both, she slowly began undoing her braid while refraining from commenting on what Sarge was telling her.
Without looking at it, he balanced the spoon on the back of his fingers for a few moments before sending it back into motion. “Physically, we pretty much fought to a draw—as in we were both able to get up and walk away from each other. I took my ass home, grabbed a wad of cash from my mother’s purse, packed a change of clothes and bought a bus ticket for a trip around the entire f’n country. Three days later some state troopers stop the bus, escort me off and haul my ass back home. My mother made dad make nice nice to me. That included an extensive explanation of exactly what I’d done to deserve the beat down he tried to serve me. It also included why, if I wanted to live another day, I’d never do anything like it ever again because, even if he died that minute, when I’d run my mouth, word had spread like lightning to parts I don’t even want to think about right now, and I’d have to deal with someone else stepping in to put me in my place in a much more permanent fashion.” He laid the spoon down on the table. “As Anton likes to say, do you read me, Lily?”
“Yes, Sarge, I read you.” Lily nodded, tossed her now loose hair over her shoulder then reached for the last piece of rye bread. She buttered the heel crust of the rye bread, cut it in half and offered half to Sarge who, sensing she was communicating something more than sharing the last of the loaf of rye bread, but which at the moment he had no idea about, accepted and ate. She chewed and swallowed her piece while looking straight at the man across from her as he ate his share. “Sarge, I could ask a lot of questions about what you’ve just told me. But I’m not going to right now. Is that okay with you?”
Sarge shrugged and picked up the spoon again. “Suit yourself, Lily. Ask or don’t ask. It’s just my damn insane personal family drama. Nothing earth-shaking about it. It’s been played out ever since the dawn of human time.”
“I don’t think you understand why I’m not going to ask my questions straight off. I can see just how stressful the whole situation was, and still is, just by watching your face while you talk. You need a rest from it, Sarge. From just even thinking about it.” Lily glanced at the spoon now motionless between his thumb and index finger. She pushed her hair behind her ears and leaned forward. “Let’s have some fun.”
“Yeah, fun. What would you like to do for fun?” She waved a finger at him. “Don’t even think of saying ‘sex.’ We’re not ready for that yet. Come up with something else. How about something you really enjoy, but haven’t done for a long time.”
“Oh, well that would definitely be sex.” He laughed and caught the soup spoon she threw at him. “Okay. Okay. I just couldn’t resist after you brought it up.” Setting the spoons down, he cocked his head to one side. “How about we see if there’s any music on your little radio that’s good for dancing?”
“Dancing? You want to dance?”
“Yeah, I want to dance. The other night at the potluck I was going nuts with all that good music and no room to dance. How’s that for fun?”
A smile spread across Lily’s face. “I can do way better than the radio. Well, maybe I can. It depends on what kind of music you want to dance to.”
“You’re just being cagey.” Lily went out into the hall and into the storage closet where they’d put her snowshoes earlier. Following her, Sarge stood in the entrance doorway waiting for her to emerge from the closet. First she came out with an old square record turntable in its own box. She handed it to him then returned to the closet for a box of LP records. Holding the box against her chest she looked up at him with an excited gleam in her eyes. “Do you like to swing, Sarge? Hmm? How about some jazz steps? A waltz maybe?”
Curious, he started looking through the records in the box, grinned sheepishly then took it from her. “I have the feeling it’s a very good thing that we’re on the first floor, Lily.”
“Really? Let’s get the couch out-of-the-way and see what your feet can do.”
Picking what music to play first took less time than moving the couch and table against the far wall. Barely halfway through the first track on the Benny Goodman album they cleared the rugs from the floor. When the first side ended they threw themselves onto the couch laughing about their efforts. “Oh that was so bad and yet so felt so good. Oh hell. I think my right foot has defected to the left.”
“Oh you’ve got commie feet, eh? I knew there was something red about you. Now I know it’s your feet.” Leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, Sarge took a few deep breaths. “Damn, this is more work than shoveling snow off roofs. That’s not right.”
“Just one commie foot. Oh I think we both need to wait a bit before we do another round. Let’s do something that doesn’t require two coordinated feet. I see that grin. Don’t even say that word in jest or I’ll dance all over your shins again.”
“Let’s kill two birds with one stone.”
“Um okay. Which birds are you thinking of killing?”
“Bread, Lily. Let’s make more bread. The rye is all gone. It’s something I’ve never done.”
“Bread? You want to make bread? Hell, why not. What kind do you want to make?”
“I have choices?”
“Yes. You have choices, funny man. Come on, the recipe box is in the kitchen.”
Sarge looked at the record player. “We need music to bake by. How about some jazz?”
“I think there’s some Miles Davis towards the back of the box.”
“Yes, indeed there is. Oh yeah. Kind of Blue.” Sarge exchanged the records, started the music and awkwardly soft shuffled his way into the kitchen.
The first loaf of cinnamon raisin bread was cooling by 7 pm. While they danced through side two of Kind of Blue another loaf of rye was rising. Around 9 pm they’d finally found their grove with the music. At 10:30 they raided the freezer in the front room for Rosa’s flour supply. Sarge found a kneading beat he liked while they listened to Jelly Roll Morton. At 12:45 am they attempted a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers style dance routine in the hallway. That brought a curious Rosa and Ricardo to the second floor landing for a few minutes where they wondered about the flour dusting the floor, walls and ceiling then decided not to venture further downstairs. By 2 am the honey wheat bread was going into the oven. It was around 2:37 am when they managed a halfway respectable waltz. At 3:47 am they abandoned the mess in the kitchen, waved good night to the record player, slid under the down quilt and fell asleep talking about how Fred Astaire appeared to dance up walls and on a ceiling in an old movie they’d both seen but which neither could name.
By 10:10 am they were picking up where they’d left off, alternating making breads and dancing while the record player needle continued making its way through every old vinyl in Lily’s sturdy cardboard box. Lily didn’t pay attention to the snow mounting up outside the main room’s windows. Sarge didn’t think about his dysfunctional family issues. When Rosa came to tell Lily that Esther had called looking for her, she stood in the doorway to the kitchen watching Sarge kneading bread dough and Lily mixing ingredients for another loaf while Stan Getz’s sax swirled through their debate about making oatmeal cookies without or without raisins and chocolate chips for the children. When Rosa said, “You two making a bakery?” they both noticed her for the first time and stared at her like two children on a sugar high.
Standing in the midst of their mess, they looked at Rosa and then at each other and said in unison, “Another oven.”
Rosa looked at them then around the kitchen and at the loaves of bread in various stages of rising and cooling everywhere. Seeing one of her sacks of flour on a chair beside the table and another sack in waiting under it, she walked over to the open kitchen cabinet they’d converted to a large bread box. After a quick inventory she took a loaf of cinnamon bread and a loaf of pumpkin bread from the shelves. “No chocolate in the oatmeal cookies, por favor.” She started to leave then stopped. “Rosa’s oven is open for business. Esther wants a phone chat, Lily. Ok. Buenos dias, Sarge.”
“Buenos dias, Rosa.”