Lamppost Voices Amplified
I’d slammed the car door without realizing part of the camel hair coat was hanging out, very nice piece of attire indeed. I’m a klutz but managed to sneak it out of the Kennedy Plaza apartment on Broad Street when one detective used the bathroom and the other was peeking under the bed. What drew me to it is anyone’s guess. The label read Briggs LTD, a fancy clothier in Providence. The place looked like Hurricane Carol spent the night. Person or persons unknown stabbed and shoved my father down the senior residence cement stairs. His lifelong friend Augie Sprague whose left eye sometimes blinked out of control showed up at Lebanon Knitting Mills where I was a floor sweeper. He drove me to the morgue in his Royal cab. Barrel-chested, he was a former boxer. He claimed to been in the ring with Young Montreal but had no newspaper clippings to prove it. Stooped, he once stood over six feet. Augie had always been around. He used take my mother shopping in his cab and on other errands. My father never had a dependable car. I’d heard Augie calmly lecturing him about family duties when I was a kid.
My expired Rhode Island license worked. I picked up my dad’s personal effects. Almost fell over when I saw a photo of my mother in his Buxton wallet. There was a small Swiss Army knife, Timex wristwatch, half the strap missing, reading glasses, and a pack of cherry Lifesavers. The keyring was a horseshoe with Pike’s Peak Meadows lettering. They let me use the phone to call a funeral home. I chose where my mother was waked, McAloon’s on Garden Street. When the mortician heard my name, he asked me to hold. Next voice asked, "You’re Howard Redmond’s son, correct?"
"Our Condolences—he took advantage of pre-pay, Mt. St. Mary’s Cemetery plot too. He desired no viewing or service.”
What a relief. They’d pick him up when the investigation was finished.
I examined the coat damage in my room, just a bit of grease. I tried it on; no fit for me and certainly not my father. While smoothing out a poorly sewn slit in the lining, I heard a crinkling noise. Removing thick thread, I reached in and found first an envelope containing a fifteen grand Metropolitan Insurance policy. I was the beneficiary. The thought of that much dough shook my hands and rattled my mind. I picked up the paper folded in four I’d dropped, a rejection slip from the Crime, Period, Review that was brief, nothing personal about it, “Dear Sir or Madam, Your story not for us, try again soon.” The logo was a revolver, string of dots in a line from the barrel. One of the handfuls of times I’d seen him in the last couple of years, he told me of his trip to Colorado. While hitchhiking in the rain on Route 80 in Nebraska, a kid in a red Corvette picked him up and complemented his storytelling, raved about it. “Write it down, oh eloquent man!” There was also an unused postcard, the Student Union at the University of Colorado and a Franco-American Credit Union passbook with $2,500 worth of $100 cash deposits. The current balance was zero. That and more must have gone to McAloon. A business card shocked hell out of me: Alan Dooley, Esq. “ENOUGH,” written on the back. He was a Project kid like me but a punk to the core yet a Brown University graduate and mayoral candidate. A bully, he was brave with a gang backing him. That wavy haired moon faced punk I’d heard a woman call shanty Irish was three years older. He terrorized kids left and right. I was his favorite target. I fought back when he tried to take my mail order Black Forest hunting knife. I’d seen it in an Outdoor Life Magazine at the Bishop Bend Barbershop. It was a beauty, silver, eagle claw, handle tip. It seemed like forever before it arrived. Good thing it was summer so I could keep a sharp eye for the mailman. My mother never would have let it slip by without inspection. I’d been throwing it at a big oak on the grass in front of our Housing Project when assaulted. I landed one punch to his chest then Augie came to my rescue, chased the gang away. He missed grabbing a handful of Dooley’s hair by inches. Augie took the Black Forest sticker, gave it to my mother. She lectured me then just shook her head tears in her eyes.
Was my old man a blackmailer? What incriminating facts had he known about Dooley? On the back of the Crime, Period, rejection slip was scribbled, “Tires, Heat and Babies Dead” 3,175 words. I smiled at the idea of my father two-finger pecking away, maybe Wite-Out speckling his fingers. I’d rented an Underwood to practice on in high school. My mother always said a body would never be without work if he or she could type. On a couple of occasions, she used the edge of the kitchen table to pretend type my name: T-h-o-m-a-s—R-e-d-m-o-n-d and talked about her days as a clerk typist at Glenlyon Textile. She told of counting her strokes as her speed built, imagining a new Ford station wagon speedometer in the flying keys. When the document was finished, she fantasized slowly pulling her Country Squire into the garage of a newly built colonial. She never drove, never owned a house. He left us to the Prospect Heights Project life and scraping by a long time ago. I felt half-guilty being empty of grief. A reference librarian looked up info on Dooley for me. He’d gone to a Denver Law School. Only detail on the Boulder University was a fetus found in dormitory trash. Could Dooley have been involved? Christ, a third of the story title fit, but my father didn’t send it to Time or Newsweek. Hell, fiction for sure, but how many nail heads did he hit to scare Dooley into paying, and murder? I thought about hitching or taking a bus out west, finding a dishwashing job at the Lamppost Inn as my father had, snoop around; learn what Dooley had to hide; zip through newspaper microfilm seeking clues. I could fund it easily on the insurance money. Forget it. That adventure was his alone but it would sure be nice to get more than four New England states under my belt.
At the Pleasant Street Café, where I saw my old man last, I’d find myself talking out loud to him, imagining us betting horses at the keyring racetrack or hearing about a Mickey Spillane he just finished, say, The Snake, probably to fend off any family chatter. I might have us enjoying fish and chips at the Tracey’s Place on Beverage Hill Avenue. We did that twice. I often blamed myself for not watching over him better but the damned Project hardships kicked in. I switched from Narragansett Beer to his Michalob in the odd bottle he claimed was the closest to the Olympia he drank out west. I finally quit hops, took up Canadian Club highballs. Before I’d taken my first taste, a tipsy woman tossed a cup of Indian dice. Two hit my glass, six, and one. Staring at those cubes, I thought of Mr. Gomes, my high school geometry teacher as well as a floating crap game my father said he ran in his teens. The accidental drop of seven reminded me that my father only got to that grade at Slater Jr. High! How did he manage to write that story? What became of it? Rejected, but still, did he have the gift, knack, or luck? More evidence of his talent surfaced when I stopped at the post office to check my box a windy hat-grabbing afternoon. One piece didn’t look like junk. The return address was Colfax or Larimer Crime Quarterly, 91 Spear Blvd, Denver, Colorado. I opened the envelope in my room using my father’s pocketknife. “Dear Thomas, We love ‘Ambulance My Ambulance,” publication expected January 15” and jeez, a hundred-fifty-dollar check. Rushing to the library it struck me that my father must have foreseen his death or spotted a big clue so he submitted the story in my name. A fellow with puzzled brow researched Colfax or Larimer for me: circulation ten-thousand. That many doubts would come to haunt me. That figure was nine-thousand, nine-hundred and sixty-seven more than the thirty-three stab wounds that killed my father.
Four days later, I met Augie at the Pleasant Cafe. I told him about the story luck. He was familiar with the plot and congratulated me. He offered a hint. “A sleazy ambulance-chasing mouthpiece gets the surprise of his life by way of an oversized van that’s not in the same league as a Brink’s vehicle.” He hoped there’d be a review in The Pawtucket Times. I promised to get him Colfax or Larimer copies. Augie told more. Yes, my father was a blackmailer. Dooley didn’t know he was going splits with Augie. He had no idea what happened to the rejected tale. “What were you guys holding over his head,” I asked. Augie continued, mentioned a woman named Doreen Bannon. She was the only woman I knew of in the Project to go into the military: She flashed to mind: a curly-haired, shapely teen. She’d appeared on a local Providence TV dance show modeled after American Bandstand. I never knew she served at Lowry Air Force Base, Denver Colorado. She earned an associate degree in criminal justice, of all things, at Arapahoe Community College, but the sheepskin didn’t stop her from performing abortions on two of Alan Dooley’s girlfriends, one a fourteen-year-old. I remembered Doreen’s mother once accused of that crime. Doreen failed to complete her hitch thanks to a U-Haul box truck full of air conditioners and tires she’d lifted from a Lowry warehouse. She got six months stockade time plus a Bad Conduct Discharge but didn’t rat out her fence, Dooley. My dad learned about the minor “patient” through cook and waitress whispers at the Lamppost.
I bought a Providence Journal on the way to breakfast at the Riverview Diner. The headline stunned me. “Mayoral Candidate Dooley And Companion Hit and Run by Brink’s Truck Hijacked From Under Guards’ Noses.” I read on to find that Doreen was the other victim. They were in a crosswalk in front of the Biltmore Hotel. I joined Augie in a booth, a hint of a smile on his face. A dark brown beret sat on his head. “Pretty convenient,” he said of the news. I nodded. Augie anguished that if he hadn’t stopped for a beer and a shot, he might have prevented my dad’s death. I figured old as he was he would have suffered the same fate. I offered a cut of the insurance money. “Don’t need cash, kid. I didn’t pick a dump truck or city bus.” I waited a few seconds for more but all that came was “Say, you know that snazzy camel hair?”
“It’s yours,” I said. I pictured the coat on him as dapper as on a Brooks Brothers mannequin, artificial poppy in the lapel and the four buttons like gizmos to press to adjust the swell of goodness in a man’s soul. We ate our ninety-nine cent specials in odd silence: three times thirty-three. Augie favored poached eggs on raisin toast. He grabbed the check and mumbled something that sounded like "Thanks, Son."
Outside, I gazed in a window at Augie who’d moved to a booth. He took a long swig from his mug then started typing on the table. So fast, I thought of my mother’s speedometer story. His fingers moved like a reporter warming up to bang out a bombshell but after another sip of coffee, he moved his fingers in slow motion but his fingers hit so hard they must have hurt. My counting ended at thirty-three. When he held his hands as if in prayer in a pew at St. Teresa’s, I remembered a quote my mother might have used if she were standing beside me, “Believe a needle hole of what you hear, a thimble of what you read, and a quilt patch of what you see.” After the coat was dry-cleaned and the lining repaired at Keenan’s, I sent it to Augie, UPS insured. Next stop was the Collette Travel. I booked a Western U.S. Train Tour on the California Zephyr, leave when the insurance money was in the bank. Like puzzling over a Journal Sunday crossword, I kept wondering about what followed his "Thanks.”
I bought a small suitcase and two James Bond paperbacks, Moonraker and You Only Live Twice, also a Reader’s Digest. The twenty-eight hour Greyhound bus to Chicago to catch the Zephyr was my life’s longest trip. I dozed most of the way often imagining a new life was unfolding. I had time on my hands after arrival, so I checked into the W. Van Buran Y to get some real sleep and a shower. I was so used to living on the cheap a real hotel didn’t get much of a thought.
I slept late, had a big breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s about a five-minute walk. The clerk at the Y who reminded me of Augie recommended it. Augie, who are you? I splurged on steak, eggs, and a big glass of tomato juice. I had my travel clothes cleaned at an hour laundry. The Zephyr departed at ten p.m. I walked around enjoying the biggest city I’d ever visited. I took a long walk by the Lake before taking a cab to the Lincoln Park Zoo. If it were baseball season and the White Sox were at home, would have gone there. The cabbie noticed my accent.
“Are you from Boston?”
“44 miles to the south” I said. My used pea coat I’d bought at the Gob Shops, stencil on the lining that read “Paradise,” unwound his Navy days in Newport.
“44 miles, Providence or Pawtucket?” he asked.
“Second one,” I said.
He’d been there, drank in a bar called Carey’s my father used to talk about. Except for a heart palpitation, I would have been a sailor. He didn’t’ pry any more than that. “Good thing you have that coat with you, been awfully cold lately.”
The zoo made Slater Park back home look miniature. I enjoyed watching the giraffes most of all. I saw a couple of kids playing with toy knives. Trick blades that slid into the handle with slight pressure. The sight of them viciously stabbing each other set my good mood back a bit. My lunch was hotdogs from a street vendor before hunting down a movie. A helpful bus driver instructed me what bus to take. I chose “The Bicycle Thief” playing at the World Theater. I had to leave early on because it was about a father / son relationship and there was a squeaking sound coming from the balcony that yanked to mind the plastic knives. The popcorn was nice and buttery. I asked a cop for directions to Union Station. His nametag read “Dooley.” Another bus ride and I was a short walk from the train. A woman who looked a bit like young Doreen asked me if I wanted a date. I said no and quickened my pace. There was no escaping. Hometown, please disappear or at least hide. An hour later, I arrived at my destination. Inside the station, at a newspaper store near the waiting room I bought jellybeans and peanuts for snacking. I checked my reservation with a clerk. I was in good shape. My bag was so light I didn’t have to check it. What a place. In Pawtucket, you caught a train down near the tracks. The depot was an eyesore.
The train ride was a fantastic two and a half days. I didn’t get a sleeper, just rented a pillow for a quarter. I had some decent meals in the dining car, fettuccine Alfredo for the first time, delicious, deluxe Kraft mac & cheese. I stuck with the Reader’s Digest when I wasn’t napping, the Bond novels too violent. I had a window seat, what scenery, fields, pastures, and orchards! I wished I’d grown up on a farm. A talkative woman who must have been a geography teacher sure knew the lay of the land and wasn’t bashful about sharing it. She had a very refined way of speaking. I found a couple of words she used in the “Word Power” section of the Digest later. She appeared to be in her thirties, long chestnut hair, and flawless complexion. Once she looked straight at me, eyes a deep blue. I stayed lost in her commentary. When we crossed the Mississippi River, she lectured on Mark Twain then the Colorado River, Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada Range. She told a chilling story about cannibalism among a stormbound group at the Donner Pass. When she mentioned the Ruby Canyon, I thought that was the shade of her lipstick. She explained the Continental Divide. Some of the tunnels seemed endless, especially the Moffat. I memorized the scheduled stops: Aurora, Mendota, Kewanee, Galesburg, Burlington, Mt Pleasant, Fairfield, Ottumwa, Creston, and Omaha, and so on to serve as markers in my memory’s America slide show. There were two other state capitals besides, Denver and Lincoln, Salt Lake City and Sacramento. The schoolteacher lost her voice in Winnemucca, Nevada.
A few minutes after three p.m. the Zephyr pulled into the 3rd Street station located in Jack London Square, a white stucco building. I’d read White Fang and Call of the Wild in junior high. Augie was big on a London story about a boxer, “A Piece of Steak.” I sure felt bad for that poor pugilist (Augie liked that word): Welcome back Augie. I planned to go to another YMCA for some shuteye after I picked up three postcards to send to my friends at Lebanon Knitting Mills. I wrote them out sitting on a bench beside a brown pigeon. One of my friends, Bill Brandon would be at the time clock showing off his postcard as if I were actually a student at the Berkeley building pictured. A worker who’d just emptied a wastepaper basket in a city barrel gave me directions to the main P.O. The name patch on his jacket was Corso. It was on 7th Street. I bought 3, 4-cent stamps. On the way out, I stopped to look at the wanted posters as I often did. I nearly dropped at the sight of Augie, wanted for three homicides and grand larceny.
On the Sitmar Line’s Fairsea cruise ship headed for Alaska, it was no easier to forget than on the Zephyr. At every turn, I saw an Augie. I had nightmares, found my fingers twitching, sometimes on a table or on an actual typewriter. They were my mother’s fingers or Augie’s. The other set just gripped a frosty Michalob.
Tom Redford Chooses Life