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Like the Whiteness of the World

ISSUE:  Winter 1991

Finney. I have a sudden image of him as sharp as if I held in my hand the picture that appeared in a back page of The Boston American: the pointed nose, the muddy eyes, the thin smirk with all the pain in the corners of the cruel self-despising mouth—and a vision of him as he looked at the wake (the only wake I ever attended), relaxed at last, the Finney he had wanted to be, the wild frustrations gone out of him. Francis Xavier Finney. I never knew the full name until I saw it in the paper.

It’s the sight today of the snow piling up in the streets, I guess, that disinters him. And the excited talk on the radio about high and low pressures and travelers’ advisories. I’ve lived for some time in Washington where a couple of inches of accumulation and 25 degrees of Fahrenheit bring a paroxysm of terror on the city. But in Boston ten or 12 inches of snow and a thermometer hovering in the teens was what winter was all about. More often than not the Thanksgiving Day football game between Boston Latin and English High slithered back and forth through freezing curtains of sleet.

I worked weekends and holidays while I was in high school in a taxi dispatch office behind the Codman Square library in Dorchester—one dollar for a 12-hour shift. It was a lucky thing to have any kind of work then, and I felt guilty about it when I looked at the windbitten men my father’s age walking the streets and hovering in the doorways.

That cold Saturday afternoon I slumped lazily at the switchboard gazing through the plate-glass window at the rows of icicles that rimmed the library eaves. I was a poet conjuring metaphors. Fingers of frozen sky. Spears of winter breath.

“Slam like a pickax.” Pete Waller’s high voice, almost squeaky in spite of his bulk, came from behind me. “Get one of those through the top of your head and you’re a gonner.” I had forgotten he was there. Did he notice such things? Daggers of sunlight.

“There goes Croak,” Waller said.

The old man they’d made their pet shuffled up the incline of the library lawn to relieve himself against the wall. His sunken face was blue with the cold.

“He don’t know it’s freezin out there. He can’t feel a thing.”

Croak’s shaky fingers played along the wrinkles of his pants searching for the fly; a thin stream trickled out sparkling in the weak light. Wind lifted his sparse hair toward the icicles hanging straight overhead. Two streetcars hitched together came grinding up Talbot Avenue clanging and shaking and trailing sparks. The floor of the dispatch office trembled.

“Watch one of them icicles come down—zing, like a tomahawk.” Waller moved over and leaned his fat belly against the window. “You ever see the top of his head? Soft like a baby’s. Rotgut eating through the brain.”

The icicles shivered and hung on. Croak turned away from the library wall struggling to get his pants buttoned.

The switchboard coughed its gargly signal, and I plugged the green-lighted hole. A fare down at Ashmont. Waller drove off in the brown and white DeSoto.

Finney came in stamping. “Where’s Pete?”

“On a fare.”

He examined the log sheet. “Bullcrap.” He took off his gloves and coat and stood on the other side of the low switchboard smoking and staring out at the geysers of snowflakes racing along the sidewalk. He held his cigarette between the tips of his fingers and inhaled in quick tugs. He was skinny, short; his face was narrow, blotched red; the veins on the backs of his hands were knotty. His chin jutted; his nose was sharp; his eyes were set close in the quarter moon face; when he drank heavily they screwed up and sank from hazel to a putty green inside orange rims. He drank the way he smoked, in hard quick tugs from the bottle, angrily.

On calls Finney wore a long fur-collared black coat, leather coachman’s gloves and a black leather cap which he switched for a visored chauffeur’s cap when he drove one of the two Cadillac limousines. He was clever and nasty about which runs he would go on, no matter how much the switchboard clattered and lit up, and managed to claim most limousine calls for himself on the unspoken argument that he had once been a driver for a millionaire.

“Sonovabitch of a storm coming.”

Gutters on the library roof rattled. An icicle fell stabbing through the crust of a snowdrift. Like a pickax.

By dark, sheets of snow were lashing about. The switchboard shivered and blinked, and the calls began to pile up. At about ten the drivers at the Grove Hall stand stopped answering my buzzes and pretty soon Finney announced that he wasn’t going out any more: you couldn’t see two feet ahead, it took an hour for every pissy little fare. Then Pete Waller came in and said no more runs and if the boss calls tell him to go take a flying, and they went around the corner to Tabby’s Tavern next to the movie house. Waller knew I wasn’t going to tell anyone to go take a flying anything. They made a lot of noise but they were careful with Bruno, the boss. When his scratchy growl came over the wire, Pete nodded down at his stomach and went, “Yeah, sure thing, Bruno, you bet, I gottcha,” and afterwards stood munching his fat lips and staring glassy-eyed at the wall.

I sat alone at the switchboard. A whip of cold stung my ankles. Croak came in flapping his arms at himself. “Where are the boys?” Platelets of snow covered the brown stocking hat he had pulled over his ears.

“Around the corner.”

Croak blew on his fingertips. His concave face was Finney’s face ten years older. “You couldn’t lend a pal a quarter.”

I dug out a dime.

“Good kid, you’re going to be okay, not like most of ‘em.” His chin and cheeks were the color of cement. He had probably just finished sleeping off a drunk; but he had shaved before coming out as he always did and in spite of the frayed sleeves and drab tie managed somehow to suggest the dapper dude they said he once was.

Waller and Finney came in stamping and blowing followed by a blonde woman I had never seen before and Gimpy, younger than the others, smooth-skinned, on his crutches.

“Hey, Croak.” Waller plucked the stocking hat from the old man’s head.

“Did you bring a jug?” Croak scanned their faces.

Finney’s chin poked at him. “You need a drink, Croak?” They were two birds beak to beak, skinny, yellow-eyed.

“Oh, I do, I do.”

Pete Waller moved in and pulled a flat pint of Old Overholt out of his coat pocket. “This do, Croak?” The old man stretched a trembling hand for it and Pete stepped back. “Two bits.”

Croak’s wet eyes roamed the room. “All I got is a dime.”

“Dance for it.”

Waller drew a quarter from his pocket and placed it carefully, his fat fingers curling out like feathers, on Croak’s head. The old man began a stately jig, one leg up, then the other, one shoulder, then the other.

“You, Gimpy?” Pete held out the bottle.

Gimpy’s tongue slid between his lips. He had brass yellow hair and massive shoulders that seemed to have grown around his crutches. He glanced at the dancing old man, and then his large shoulders pulled the crutches into his armpits and he, too, began to dance: one crutch and shoulder forward and then the other, like a mechanical doll, tap-tap, swing the lifeless legs; one crutch back, then the other, tap-tap, swing the legs. The woman hummed a jig tune: la-la-la, la-la-la. And she, too, began to move around in an attempt at a graceful dance.

“Your turn, kid.” Waller’s wobbling stomach bumped against me. “Dance.” The fat stomach pushed me from my seat.

I clutched at the edge of the switchboard.


“Cut it, Waller,” Finney said.

The belly bumped against me.

“Cut it.”

Peter Waller’s small teeth showed and he turned away. “Nice going, Croak.” Waller plucked the coin from Croak’s head and handed him the bottle.

Gimpy slowed to a stop and waited his turn, leaning on his crutches.

“Not you, Gimpy.”

“C’mon, Pete.”

“You can give us a better show than that.”

Gimpy watched the bubbles rising in the bottle as Croak drank. His shoulders rolled. He moved to position himself in the center of the room, wriggling his crutches to fix the rubber tips on the floor, and abruptly heaved his body into a handstand on his sticks, crumpled legs flopping. Limp tassels, I thought automatically. Windless pennants. The woman danced around him and applauded.

Gimpy hung upside down in the smokey air; his yellow hair streamed down to the crutches rooted like scaffolding to the floor. At last he swung down, chest heaving, and grabbed the bottle.

Finney had been paying no attention. He stood at the window tugging on a cigarette. He was a slight figure, silent most of the time, motionless for long minutes. When he was irritated, and he often was though it was not always clear why, only the contraction of his red eyelids or a tightening of the shoulders signaled it. If he wanted the log amended—to shave a little off a fare for himself or because he had made one of his private stops—he lifted the pencil out of my hand and silently executed the change himself. Pete Waller’s way was to try to force me to do it for him. “I can’t, Pete.” “C’mon, you do it for Finney.” “No, I don’t. I’ve never changed the log. What he does to it is his business.” But Waller wouldn’t touch the log himself. Maybe he needed the job more than Finney did, or despised it less—though it was Finney who wore the coachman’s coat and put on the chauffeur’s cap when he drove one of the limousines.

I remember Finney standing there that night gazing vacantly at the storm. He had taken off his hat and the thinness of his hair made him seem aged—though I don’t think he was more than 41 or 42. He looked smaller, gentler, as if his anger or whatever the hardness was that lay stored up in him had melted. I used to catch him looking like that from time to time, suddenly alone, maybe dreaming. About women, I guessed, the ones who asked for him on the line and the ones I knew he picked up on the way back from a run and took somewhere. Later, I imagined that it was the wife and kids he never saw that had come into his thoughts. It was always a surprise to remember that he was married. He never talked about it; once when he was drunk and we were alone he said suddenly: “My wife. Green eyes.” That was all. He looked directly at me, intensely, as if I was to deduce everything from that, and as if it mattered whether I cared. Afterwards I pieced together his story. Her name was Sheila, she was a pretty girl, and they had been in love. Then he started to drink and have women and perhaps he hit her and she turned her back on him and shut him out. She wouldn’t divorce him and probably once or twice they tried again. After he was dead, I composed a scene—O’Casey? Synge? Sheila: Polluted again. Finney: Not that bad. Sheila: (Bathing his forehead.) Who konked you? You’ve got an egg for Easter. Finney: (Burying his head in her lap.) Oh, Sheila. Why do you put up with me? Sheila: Mother of Jesus, I don’t know why. Why did he punish me by making me love you? You with the nose like a parsnip. It was the eyes—the calf’s eyes. Begging. Promising. What a great man you were going to be. Finney: I believed it myself. Sheila: I swallowed you and turned you into babies. They’ve become like you. You went sour in the stomach. I cursed Jesus, cursed God, and lost Him— And so on. He had a boy, 18 or 19, already a heavy, drinker and a thief, and a girl 17, married and separated and gone from home.

The light had changed, thickened with the weight of the outside storm. Finney hardly seemed to move; he looked smaller and now he appeared not old but young. I saw the runty kid he must have been, all bony joints and tight muscles, forever aching for a fight with someone he could lick. All through school up into Latin School I knew kids like him out of the flat-topped three-deckers. A mother old before he was born, already half toothless, quick with the curse and the slap. Too scrawny for football or baseball, a failure at track. Probably he stole. Rage curled like smoke in his eyes from the first grade on, still did, showed in the snarl on his thin mouth, sprang out like the swipe of an animal’s claw. I knew him, others like him, and was wary of them, the hostile eyes, and the whispers floating behind me like a foul breath down the aisles, into the toilets. Even when I let them copy my homework, sneak a look at a test answer, the derisive eyes surrounded me. Finney’s eyes were theirs—narrow, shiny, ready to flare hot. I feared him, more than I feared Waller.

And yet there was a certain self-consciousness in his look, as if he was embarrassed by what my wariness said about him. And I detected something else in the way his eyes fixed on me: a kind of sneering envy, and maybe even a contemptuous patronizing sympathy: I had hold of possibilities—and he was the older brother, failed, self-hating, vicious, and yet perhaps, in a pinch, the kid’s protector. And, oddly, I felt imposed upon, as if, along with all the other pressures on me, I would have to live up to his jealous expectations. Still, I could not shake off the feeling that he hated me, the self-righteous little grade-grubbing abstemious Jew. Nor could I get rid of the feeling that he believed that I despised him and was, somehow, a menace to him. Which, to make this mutual fascination still more complex, intensified my fear at the same time that it induced in me a strange compassion for him.

Then I learned, with amazement, that he had himself attended Latin School, briefly; entered in the sixth class, which was the seventh grade, and by the end of the year flunked out—he must have been 11 or 12. Perhaps a teacher, detecting some spark of possibility in the sullenness, had sent him there—maybe his mother; certainly she wasn’t the toothless, cursing hag I had visualized. She had given him the famous saint’s name, after all, fantasizing some kind of glory for him. And perhaps for a month or two that year, before the murderous weight of the work and the coldness of unsympathetic masters did him in, he was swept into the dreams of eminence that were meant to be incited in all of us by those names of graduates carved on the frieze that ran around the assembly hall: Adams, Lowell, Franklin, Emerson, Hancock, Eliot, and so on; and perhaps, like the rest of us, he saw himself in the glorious deeds and romantic events we read about in “Fabulae Faciles” and “The Lays of Ancient Rome” or recited in monthly “declamation”—Lars Porsena of Clusium, By the nine gods he swore. . . . Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp Or what’s a heaven for?. . . . Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, by the livin Gawd that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din! . . .

He was proud of his attendance at Latin School, I realized; brief as it was it set him apart from the other drivers. He used to stand looking over my shoulder when I opened a book during slack periods. “What are you studying, kid? What are you gonna be, Benny Einstein?” The thin smile hung on his lips but the nastiness I expected was not there. And when I held up my copy of Ovid or offered him a look at “II Penseroso” or The Vicar of Wakefield or leaned apprehensively to the side only half revealing the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that my friends and I were memorizing at the time (About the trees my arms I wound; Like one gone mad I hugged the ground; I raised my quivering arms on high; I laughed and laughed into the sky. . ..), he would sometimes take the volume and flip the pages nodding as if to say, Yeah, I remember, as though he had been through it all before me. One russet autumn Sunday, Pete Waller overheard and suddenly gave forth: “H.G. Wells. You ever read The Time Machine? How about Jules Verne?” Waller looked out at the library glowing in flesh-soft light. “Jack London. Call of the Wild. Star Rover,” he recited sadly as if in mourning. Finney let out a low growl, stamped out his Old Gold on the wooden floor, clamped on his hat, and went out.

Something else Finney hung on to was the memory of the time he was a private chauffeur. “I used to drive for a guy,” he said to me out of the silence one afternoon when we were alone. He was sitting in the battered wooden arm chair against the wall turning the pages of an old Liberty magazine. “He was a big Irishman,” he said pulling at his upper lip. “Big guy. Rich. Jesus on a greased pole, he was rich. Liked to take a nip in the back seat. Always pushed the bottle at me. “Not while drivin,” I used to say. So he’d give a big laugh and hand it to me when I dropped him off. “Later. Take a good one later,” he’d say.”

Those were good days with his Sheila, too, I think.

“And you know something?” Finney said—I remember him sitting there with the magazine spread on his lap, pulling with his nicotine-stained fingers at his upper lip—”I fucked it up. Really fucked it up. I was screwin the housekeeper’s daughter and I went and lifted ten bucks out of the old biddy’s pocketbook besides and she caught me and told the guy. So the son-of-a-bitch canned me”—as if he was trying to figure out as he pulled at his lip what the poison was that had got into him—”canned me.” Then he threw down the magazine and stood up and came over to me and leaned down and breathing foully into my face said, “You little bastard, what the fuck do you know, I could break your fuckin little neck and what the fuck difference would it make?”—and smashed his fist down on the top of the switchboard and went off to Tabby’s Tavern.

In the glass of the window about a foot directly above where I sat there was a hole covered with tape through which the cold still seeped in a steady wheeze day and night. Speedy Sheehan, one of the morning drivers, told me that Finney had put it there. “Saw his wife on the street one day and she wouldn’t talk to him. So he got tanked up and came and pulled a gun—Christ knows where he got it, maybe he was doing jobs then, I don’t know—and stood over there in the middle of the car tracks and put a couple of nicks in the wall and that hole through the glass.”

I think of the way Finney used to go out on good days and polish one of the limos, and run the motor on cold days and check under the hood, and sometimes just sit behind the wheel smoking. He was in a permanent state of grieving, I guess, of dreaming and grieving.

“Aaggh, what’s the use?” he growls at me, at himself, at the purple black night. And I hear the precise tone of my father’s low exhausted growl as he utters the same words.

It was after midnight. The radiator by the cellar door knocked but gave no heat. I was bundled up in my coat and scarf and woolen hat, “Go on home,” Finney said.

“I’m supposed to stay till one.” I was supposed to stay until my relief, Campanella, got there and he was never on time.

“No one’s goin’ out. I’ll tell Bruno I sent you.”

I looked down at the log book.

“Goddamit,” Finney exploded.

So I plowed through the gale head down. Ropes of ice, I composed, shivering. Hangman’s fingers. Night the universe cracked.

The next day when I left home for work the storm still raged, now with a violent brightness that pierced the eyes. Shifts were changing at the cab stand, and the office was crowded, the floor aslosh with mud.

Pete Waller stood in a corner drawing cards for dimes with Red Paulsen, one of the early-shift drivers, a carrot-head with huge orange and brown freckles all over his skin. Paulsen was a great follower of Father Coughlin; my father was an admirer of the radio priest, too, until he turned on Roosevelt and started heating up his Sunday broadcasts with diatribes against bankers who did not have “the blood of Christianity flowing in their veins.” Everyone knew about Paulsen’s older brother, Terry, who worked in a butcher shop over on Gallivan Boulevard. I used to stand at the window when I was little and watch him in his long bloody apron hacking away at chops, moving the cleaver swiftly along the row of cuts a quarter inch from his knuckles the way my mother sliced noodles guiding the knife with the joint of her thumb. He was a heavy drinker and one rainy night he came weaving home, decided that the gutter in front of his house would do for his bed, stretched out and fell asleep. A neighbor, parking his pickup truck, ran over him with both right wheels. For a year his mother, a penniless widow, sat by his side pushing spoonfuls of broth at him, carrying bedpans back and forth. The invalid rose at last from his urine-yellow mattress; the mother, worn out, died. And then the resurrected son, fully recovered, walked blind drunk into a streetcar, lost a leg at the thigh, and bled to death.

By mid-afternoon the storm had turned darkly vicious. Pete Waller tried to take his cab out on a fare and was back in ten minutes cursing, kicking at the wall. He pulled a bottle from his coat pocket. His eyes roamed the room and focused on me. “Your old man ever take a drink?” He pulled the cork and advanced toward me.

The rattle of the switchboard saved me. I plugged the lighted hole and talked into the mouthpiece.

The door creaked open and closed.

“Croak, you look like a dead fish.”

“Have you got a drink, Pete, for the love of Jesus. I’m dying in the gut. My bones are frozen.”

“Sure, Croak. Any time.” Waller held the bottle toward him. The old man clutched at it. “Say, Croak,” Waller said yanking the bottle away, “How come you get to drink free and I got to work my ass off to pay for it?”

“I don’t have any money, Pete, I’m cleaned out. Put it on the cuff.”

“On the cuff! You want to go into hock, Croak? That’s not smart. Man’s got to make do, tighten his belt, knuckle down, show some moxie. These are the times that try men’s souls. Right, Benjie?”

“I need a drink, Pete. How about this?” Croak raised a leg and began his slow dance.

“No sale. What else you got?”

Croak stood shaking. “Nothing, Pete.”

“Give him a drink,” Finney said from where he had been fixed as usual, smoking, staring out at the storm.

Waller’s eyes shifted from the old man to Finney and, after a moment, to me. “What about you, Benjie? He can have a drink if you have one first.”

I shook my head and began to fiddle with the log sheet.

“He says no drink, Croak.”

Finney turned toward Waller. “Give him the bottle.”

“I said if the kid drinks he drinks.”

Finney’s putty eyes contracted. Was he angry at me or at the fat driver? His lips drew back against his sand-yellow teeth; he growled something inaudible and turned away.

Waller pushed the bottle under my nose. Croak moved close. “Take a nip, kid, take a nip.” I wiped the nozzle hard against my sleeve and swallowed.

Croak grabbed the bottle. And now Gimpy was in the room, shivering, the woman with him. Croak wiped his mouth and at a wink from Waller offered Gimpy the bottle and when he reached for it snatched it away.

Gimpy let out a loud curse. His crutches fell clattering and he was down, heaving his floppy legs upward, and he was walking on his hands, palms flapping on the slushy floorboards.

Croak tapped the bottle on the boards. “Here, Gimpy, here boy.” Gimpy hand-walked in a circle, palms slapping in water and mud. The wind’s low roar surrounded the room like an ocean beating on a sunken submarine.

The woman—I remember her name: Anna—seized the bottle from Croak. “Fine, Gimpy, you did fine.” Gimpy flopped to the floor, his face a bright vermilion, and she kneeled and cradled his head on an arm and raised the bottle to his lips. “You did fine, Gimpy,” she crooned and laid her head back for a swallow.

“Take him downstairs, Annie. What about it, Gimpy, that’s not broken, is it?”

She stroked his golden hair. “He does fine.”

“No kiddin?”

I watched as she handed him his crutches and tried to help him up. But he pushed her off. Her breasts were heavy and loose and I could see the deep crevice with its rounded swelling slopes.

Finney was leaning over me. “You like some of that?”

“Hey, Annie,” Pete said, “what about the kid?”

“Ooooh,” Croak moaned from the other side of the room.

“Not here, Croak, for chrissakes.” Waller pushed him toward the cellar and I heard him stumble down the steps. And then I heard the retching and the sour stink of it rose in the room.

“The kid, Annie.”

The woman approached, wet rosy lips thrust toward me, breasts heaving like the waves of an incoming tide. “Give im what ya got, Annie.” The switchboard buzzed. Finney leaned over and plugged its blinking lights. Annie came toward me ready to smother me with her breasts. I saw Waller’s small white teeth, Gimpy’s inflamed eyes, and now Croak, up from the cellar, mouldy as death. Her fingertips combed into my hair. My bowels were weak. Waller’s palm was on my back pushing me; her arm circled my waist. Finney’s eyes, strangely disconsolate, stared at me over the popping light buttons.

Waller and Annie were shoving me toward the cellar steps. Her overripe flesh enveloped me; the muscles in my groin melted. I had dreamt of women with pink-nippled breasts, full lips, soft fingers. I knew the naked heroines of Lysistrata, opulently pictured in a volume bought for 20 cents on Corn Hill, and the warm Tahiti nudes of Gauguin that gazed from the walls of the Fine Arts Museum. I was at the edge of the steps, afloat.

The storm blasted into the room.

“What the hell’s going on?” Bruno stood bellowing in the open doorway. “Who used the Caddy last?” He stood cursing, legs apart, fists rammed into the side pockets of his sheepskin coat. He was husky, darkly handsome with narrow black eyes and a thin hard mouth turned at the corner; cakes of ice clung to his furlined hunter’s hat. Fury poured out of him. “Who ran number one limo? Which one of you morons? Never checked the fuckin antifreeze, who’s the knucklehead did a stupid thing like that?” He glared wildly at them. “You understand what I’m tellin you, it’s got a cracked block, no goddam antifreeze, stupidest thing I ever saw,” he screamed. “You drive it you take care of it, you hear me?” They stood rigid staring at him. I slipped back into my chair at the switchboard. “You listenin to me?” Bruno screamed swinging his eyes around. “What do you think we’re running here, the Salvation Army? Get the goddam riffraff outta here.” He brushed the back of a hand toward Gimpy who had pulled himself up and hung draped on his crutches. “You hear me? Get em outta here and go answer those goddam calls.”

“In this kinda blizzard?” Waller said.

“Yeh, jerkhead, in this kinda blizzard.”

Bruno’s contemptuous glare swept the room again and centered on Finney. “You. You understand what happened to that machine? You understand what I’m saying? Now we gotta go ahead and tow the fuckin machine in—aaggghh— what do you know—knuckleheads—scum—” Bruno wheeled, overcome by disgust, and plunged back into the storm.

Gimpy swung himself to the door and slammed it shut.

“Cracked block,” Waller said.

“Goddam liar,”” Finney said. His eyes, I saw, had turned to shiny little clusters of seeds.

They stood swaying in silence, staring at the door.

Waller began to chuckle. The rosy flesh on his wide face appeared to balloon and go loose. “Goddam hearses.”

“Riffraff,” Gimpy said.

Waller pulled a bottle from his coat and banged it down on the switchboard.

“Hey, boys.” Gimpy started hopping on his crutches, then, balancing on a single stick, poled at the floor with the other and sent himself whirling in a circle like a pinwheel.

Finney stood by the switchboard, breathing heavily. He took a swallow from the bottle, belched, and slowly shifted his gaze around the room. “Knucklehead.” The window creaked under the lashings of the storm; a foot above my head the taped bullet hole hissed. “Croak?” Croak’s white face appeared; the eyes were dark holes punched in a paper mask. He was sick, unable to hold himself steady. “You need a drink, Croak.” The old man started to move away; Finney caught the back of his neck and tipped the bottle to his mouth. Whiskey ran wiggling down Croak’s chin.

Waller stepped up. “Have another. No charge.” He held Croak’s head while Finney tilted the bottle.

“Hey, fellers, let the old guy alone,” Annie whined.

Pete laughed. “Croak’s hollow.”

I sat rigid; the taste of vomit rode up my throat.

Gimpy swung up to try to get a drink.

“First, another one for Croak,” Finney said, and it was Gimpy’s turn to hold the bottle while the others gripped Croak’s head. Croak slumped to the floor and sat propped against the wall groaning.

Finney’s glazed eyes fixed on me. “Your turn, you little bastard.” He moved toward me holding the bottle out, and I felt Gimpy’s strong fingers grip my jaw. A trickle of whiskey went down my throat, and I began to cough and wheeze. “Shit,” Finney growled and knocked Gimpy’s hand down and turned away.

The room fell eerily quiet. Pete pushed his wobbly stomach against the woman until he had her locked in a corner; they disappeared downstairs. Croak’s groans faded and were lost. Finney stared at his own streaming reflection in the window. His lighted cigarette glowed, jerked away in quick vicious strokes, glowed again. Once he had said to me, out of the blue, “Agricola, agricolae, feminine. Why is a farmer feminine?” As if that was what had driven him out of Latin School.

In a little while Pete came up out of the basement sucking his teeth, his piggy eyes aflame. Finney turned slowly. “Where the hell you been?”

Waller gave him a slow grin.

“Tubba lard,” Finney said.


“Tubba lard, I said, fuckin’ tubba lard.”

Waller hoisted his belt belligerently.

Croak released a low groan. Annie, coming up from the basement, blouse and skirt twisted, kneeled beside him.

Finney stood over them. “Polluted scum.” He poked the toe of his shoe into the old man’s thigh. Then he started buttoning his long coat and turned to me. “Gimme the keys.”

I looked at him without moving.

“The goddam keys,” I said. “The keys. Number two.”

I opened the drawer alongside the switchboard and took out the ring with the limousine keys. Finney snatched it out of my hand, pulled on his gloves, fished his cloth chauffeur’s cap out of his pocket and fitted it on and went out the door. The black coat looked too big for him, too long, too heavy, like an oversize military coat.

A tail of the sleet-heavy wind lashed at us as the door opened and closed. Finney’s vague shape went by the window outside.

“What the hell’s he think he’s doing?”

Silence filled the room. I could see Croak’s lips issuing moan after moan but the mouth looked like the gill of a fish in a tank. Gimpy sat sprawled beside him staring at the floor. Annie had disappeared, gone down to the stink-filled cellar for some reason. Pete stood by the window where Finney usually stood looking out at the storm. It, too, seemed to have fallen mysteriously silent. You could see it: slashes of white and yellow.

I thought about Finney and his Sheila. He heard one time that she was sick. She had had a breast removed, a terrible thing in those days. He telephoned but she wouldn’t talk to him; and so he broke into her flat bringing flowers and a two-pound box of Sunday’s chocolates which he knew she liked and, concealed in his pocket just in case, a fifth of Four Roses. She screamed in fright. Don’t, he begged, he wanted to take care of her, he had a job with the cab company, he drove the limo for them, he was a changed man, they would be okay together. She never stopped screaming and finally he had a drink and another and mashed a palm over her mouth. A neighbor and his burly son rushed in in the nick of time and grabbed him and heaved him down the stairwell. Finney staggered out to the sidewalk, guzzled down the rest of the whiskey and flung the empty at his wife’s window and stood weeping in the shower of glass as a police cruiser came screeching up the street.

The switchboard lights popped and glowed, but the buzzing had melted into the quietness. Pete stood by the window, taking a drink now and then, staring.

At about eleven o’clock, maybe later, Shaughnessey, the cop on the beat, came in stomping, flailing his arms. “You got a nip?”

Waller offered his bottle.

The policeman, young, with high bony ginger cheeks, moved to a corner and drained off the two fingers of rye at the bottom of the flask. He took off his cap and rubbed his forehead. Then he fished a pack of Camels from his shirt under his tunic and lit up. He took a long drag. “Finney was the thin little guy?”

I didn’t understand at first. Then they were all looking at me, and when I understood what had happened I understood also that they were being considerate of me as if Finney and I had some special kind of relationship and this would be sad for me. And I realized later that it was. And that they had a particular sympathy for this kind of sadness.

Finney had driven off the bridge over the Neponset River up near the Mattapan car barn. Maybe he skidded. It wasn’t known as one of the nasty spots, just the bridge. But the rail was low enough for the limousine to go over and the drop high enough to smash it and kill the driver.

Pete Waller hunted in his pockets for another bottle. “Now why would a man go and do a thing like that?”

I plunged into the storm, heading home. The wind had declined to a steady whistle; sleet had given way to a wild dance of snow. Straight ahead the Lithgow Building rounded the corner of Talbot and Washington. Snow filled all its ledges and crevices and piled white crowns on the 16 arched windows that marched around its top story. Sadness, like the whiteness of the world, engulfed me.


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