What the Dope Was

J. Merrolla

   We start the story for Ostrans after he shows up one night, poking around and asking questions about Donnie Jack. We bring him down to Bill’s on the old South Side. That’s a bar. Practically the last like it around here and so are we. Figures.
     So, a bar’s not the place people usually find answers. You know what we mean. Christ, look what happened here. This is a neighborhood gone somewhere else, lost like Donnie Jack, in between the new jerks moving in and the old school dying off, one by one. But Ostrans had tracked Donnie’s history this far, that is, back to where it started, and we thought, what the hell. This guy’s die-hard. Anyway, no one else knows this story and who better to tell it than us? Hell, it’s our story, too.
     It’s like our neighborhood and Donnie Jack went away together, though we know it didn’t really happen that neatly. Anyway, there’s no one but us to tell this now, and we figure the telling’s worth at least a few beers. To Ostrans it was worth it, and if he hasn’t made it home yet, maybe he’s still out there asking questions somewhere, like more people should do. Maybe he’s finally found Donnie Jack.
     We first saw Ostrans standing on the corner that used to be ours. When we were kids in the early ‘60s, we used to wait right down the street on that corner by Pete’s Grocery and across from the newspaper stand. It used to be a good place to watch the funerals coming down the hill from Stanislaus and O’Carey Funeral Home, and the weddings going up to St. Vincent de Paul. We mean the cathedral, not the thrift store. In those days, we wanted to know everything that was happening in our neighborhood; we wanted to know everyone. We wanted to look around us. We look around these streets at the end of the day now and we don’t even know ourselves.
     I really only care what happened to Donnie Jack, kid used to live around here, Ostrans says to us, and he leans on the bar, orders a soda water. This guy looks like he could use a beer and a shave, in that order. He looks like he’s been traveling a while.
     Yeah, we know he used to live around here, we say. What do you think we are? Morons? We all knew Donnie Jack. Nobody around here is trying to hide that. Hey, Bill, hit us another round over here, will you? Donnie Jack was not the only kid in the Jack clan, Ostrans. You got a first name?
     Just call me Ostrans.
     Okay, Ostrans, but he was the oldest one living at home. He couldn’t have been more than twelve that year, small-boned kid, skinny enough to see through.  Donnie lived down the block from us. You can see his house if you go over to the window there. You’ll have to kind of look around that Bud sign, and you don’t want to be standing by that table when the Chevy plant, gang off, swing shift comes in and it’s almost midnight now. Also if you can see anything at all through the grime on the window, congratulations. Bill here maintains that dirt’s all on the outside, by the way.
     So you’re facing Elmwood Avenue here, you look-downhill about as far as you can crane your neck. It’s the big house that’s half brick and half siding on the corner of Bryant, with porches on the first and second floors.
     That house empty now? Ostrans asks.
     What? we say. Is it empty? Our buddy, Marty Schoenkopfer, in real estate up the street he hears everything. He’ll know if it’s rented or some punk band’s squatting there.
Hey, Bill, one more over here’s huh? The bottom of the glass is in view and it ain’t pretty.
Ostrans watches us drinking our beers, then he looks around him like he wants to memorize the joint. There’s not much to see at Bill’s. Basic dive gin mill with brown paneling, crappy juke box that cuts out in the middle of songs that no one bothers to fix. Bill keeps the TV going anyway. He’s got dim as hell florescent lights running down three pool tables in the back and neon signs in the windows killing the view of empty store fronts across the street. Used to be ten bars just like this Bill’s in these few blocks of Elmwood Avenue alone. Now they’re all closed up.
     Ostrans looks like he doesn’t want to touch anything just in case it comes off in his hands. He is about as out of place as somebody can look in this neighborhood if they don’t drink cheap beer, chainsmoke, or own a house with two mortgages. Or they’re not a punk band.
What was this guy like then? Ostrans asks us. Because I don’t see what my sister saw in him, period.
     Look’it, he was a kid from around here, we say. What do you want? Most days, he never even came out of his house.
     Ostrans looks at us. I know, he says, he was like that after he married
my sister, too. He orders another soda water. Never left the house until he left her for good. That sound familiar to you?
     We say it does. It was his mother kept him home most of the time, we tell Ostrans. Days he did come out, we’d see him coming up Elmwood and just surround the kid. We all made fun of him, but we made fun of everybody. We thought it was the way to make Donnie feel like he belonged, one of us, even though he wasn’t anywhere close to being one of us. Then we’d make fun of his mother and father and his dumb-ass brothers and sisters. They were a bunch of little snotheads and the mother wore so many scarves all the time we called her our lady of the scarves. We couldn’t stand the rest of that family, but Donnie we liked. Even though we never saw him change his clothes. Ever. We think they started growing with him. All but his dad’s jacket. That never fit him.
     In comes the Chevy plant gang, loud and some of them still drunk a little because they come up to Bill’s on their dinner hour, around 8 p.m., drink enough to drown a small pet, then go back to work. Sometimes they give Bill a hard time ordering their pitchers of Labatts, but not too hard, not since last winter. That’s another story. We watch them tile past our group where we’re kind of clumped around Ostrans, sitting on barstools or leaning on the bar. We always hang out in just about the same place at Bill’s. Like we used to hang out in just about the same place on the corner of Summer and Elmwood as kids, but now it’s the corner of the bar, not the street, and we don’t beg strangers to buy us booze anymore. Well, not as much. The Chevy plant gang nods, we nod. We’re on speaking terms with them now.
We turn back to Ostrans. He drains the bottom of his glass. Donnie was never a popular kid, we say.  Ostrans orders another soda water and asks for a bit of lime with it. Thought it was automatic like you always get a slice of lime, he says. No, no, Bill says, filling our pitchers and slapping the glass of soda water on the bar in front of Ostrans. You gotta ask for it around here. Ostrans looks like he’s got something to say to that, but doesn’t.
     Donnie Jack had something about him that defied us and we liked that. It wasn’t like he swaggered around. That kid had less to swagger about than anybody. Like we said, his clothes were crap and he wore his father’s big, leather jacket with the holes in it. Only they weren’t the kind of rips that people do to look cool. They were rips that had to do with wearing out and not having anything else. His old man used to be a real tough guy in his day, but he was all gone to fat, his head wide and bald like a cue ball. He never worked. We don’t know what they lived on.
     What a match, Donnie’s parents. Mr. Jack wearing all those rotten leather jackets, a different one every day, and Mrs. Jack with those scarves of hers all knotted together, end to end and wrapped around her neck and upper body like a piece of armor. Our lady of scarves, like we said. She wore dark sunglasses all the time, even at night and she told a teacher of ours once that she was legally blind, but she could see. We know she could see because Scottie said he saw her drive. One night, real goddamn late. Scottie, one of our old gang, used to be up until all odd hours and he knew about the strange shit that would happen around here. It was his job to tell us later.
     This guy still around here? Ostrans swivels on the bar stool. He looks past us to the street and empties his glass again.
     No, no, we say, that Scottie, good guy, he died in a drunk riding accident years ago when he was only thirty-two.
      Drunk riding?
     Yeah, well, Scottie wouldn’t have anything to do with cars. He rode his bike to work every day, and every day back, like that, five mile round trip out to the Chevy plant. And you know, he took a pint of whiskey and a nickel bag every trip in his lunch pail, along with a thermos of coffee and a sandwich. He was tough, Scottie, wiry little bastard copper hair, rode himself right off the Father Baker Bridge and into oncoming river traffic. Man Meets Boat, film at eleven. We kind of think he must have looked like that kid in E. T. , you remember? Floating away into mid-air on a bike.
     You said he saw Mrs. Jack driving? When was this?
     Someone from the Chevy plant gang launches a dishtowel at Bill’s head which he catches in one hand without looking up then drops on the counter, all in one move before slapping another soda water with a new slice of lime in it in front of Ostrans. While you’re at it, Bill, we say. He gives us a nod.
     Well, this was when Scottie was fourteen or so. He drove around with his dad in his truck from the “Times” and his job was keeping his dad awake while they delivered papers to all the stores and newsstands and wherever else. Scottie hung with us until about eleven-thirty at night, then he’d head up to play poker at Monty Black’s to kill time before his dad started work and we headed home before we got killed for being found out on a school night.
     All our dads but Scottie’s worked swing, meaning they were home around twelve- thirty or so. Depends how many beers they had. So off we went and off Scottie went to Monty’s. That used to be a bar right across the street here, kitty corner, almost down to Summer Street. No use going to bed for only a few hours, Scottie would say, so he’d go to Monty’s and play poker until around three, then he’d run back up Elmwood here and meet his dad with the truck, like that every single stinking morning. It was getting so he was pretty good at poker.
     Didn’t he ever make it to school?
     No, hell, Scottie never made it past ninth grade. Didn’t have to, used to have a good thing going between his job and his poker game. One morning, here comes Scottie trotting up the street and there’s Donnie coming out of his house. It must have been three a.m. by this time, but their porch light was on. Donnie looked like he’d been in a pile of dust, just covered in dirt. Scottie was going to stop, he said, and ask Donnie what was going on. We always wanted to know what the hell he was up to.
     Anyway, funny thing, there’s our lady of the scarves in the driver’s seat of their station wagon. Mrs. Jack, the so-called blind lady behind the wheel of a car when she’d sworn up and down she couldn’t see. The driver’s side door was open, the dome light was on, the headlights were on, and she was yelling at Donnie to come on, she didn’t have all day. Then she closed her door and Donnie got in and closed his door and the car started backing down the driveway like Mrs. Jack did that every day of her life. By that we mean fast-- she was backing up pretty fast and Scottie had to hop to get out of her way. Then he got going to meet his dad and told him all about it. Pretty soon everybody knew, but nobody ever asked Mrs. Jack if she could see or what.
     Where was he going with his mother? Ostrans asks.
     We never found that out. They were gone for days. Donnie wouldn’t have been one to say, you know that.
     No, Ostrans says, he wouldn’t. He motions to Bill and orders a whiskey on the rocks, although he had said earlier he never drank. We look over at Bill who shrugs at us with one shoulder and asks Ostrans, did he want a slice of lime with that? We all laugh and Ostrans looks around like he’s not sure what’s so funny, then he kind of smiles.
     The story eventually made it around the neighborhood what happened at the Jack’s that night. The old man got drinking and started beating on Donnie and Mrs. Jack. We don’t know what set it all off, but it turns out that Mrs. Jack shot the old man in the arm, then left him in the kitchen and took off. One of his old buddies found him passed out the next morning and got him up, bloody, still drunk and pissed off as anything.
     Anyway, we say, it scared Scottie to think of how many other blind Mrs. Jacks were out there driving around, and that kept him from driving himself, though he worked in a car plant every day of his life. One day, much later on when we all had our own homes and there were still jobs around here, we drove him to get his dad from the hospital in a ‘71 Monte Carlo his dad bought off Bill’s dad. They used to make those big block V-8s right up at our own plant. Not any more. Anyway, chirped those tires to spin around a corner, and Scottie looked at us like we’d stomped on his own foot good and hard. He hated cars, that Scottie.
     We finish our beers and look over at Bill. Memories, they’re crawling up our asses in this neighborhood, we say, and everybody laughed except for the Chevy plant gang who are back there in a serious pool game with three off-duty cops and Dominick, the old retired city clerk who everybody owes money to for one reason or another.
     Ostrans looks over at us and it seems like he don’t know what he came for anymore. What happened to Donnie after he left here? Ostrans asks. He’s got us there.
     Two patrol cars speed by Bill’s and Elmwood is covered by red and blue flashes bouncing off the buildings. There is no sound of the sirens. They turn them off once they get this far up the hill so they’re not exactly warning anyone they got pegged.
     The last time we saw Donnie, we say, it was pretty late on a school night, months after Scottie saw Mrs. Jack behind the wheel of the family car. We were about ready to go home for the night and then here comes Donnie Jack, walking up Elmwood. Where the hell is our lady of the scarves, we yelled at him. He ignored us, as usual.
     So, anyway, here comes Donnie toward us and there’s something about him that’s looking where he’s going walking carefully and something else running fast to get the hell out of there all at the same time. But he’s not running or looking at anything. He speeds up sometimes, and other times he walks so slow he may as well be moving sideways. Every few steps he really does move sideways and runs into whatever’s there.
     Around that hour, we didn’t have a lot to do, standing around. We’d yell at a few girls, sometimes, who cares, right? Around ten every night our sole preoccupation was yelling insults at Monty over at Monty Black’s. Mostly because every night at about ten, or maybe a little after because Monty wasn’t all that regular, he’d come out the side door of his bar and stand up against the brick wall of the building next door to his and take the longest piss of anyone we’d ever seen, then or since. We’re serious, Monty must have held it since dinner time or something. So every night, about ten o’clock, we’d all start yelling at Monty. He probably owned that alley or he owned the building next to it.
     Maybe he didn’t like who did own it, and that was Monty’s problem.
     Behind the pool tables, one of the Chevy plant gang gets in a scuffle with old Dominick, who cracks the Chevy guy over the head with his pool cue. Dom isn’t in the habit of taking any crapola, not even from these guys. Then the cops get into it, then Bill gets into it because he doesn’t want to see another pool table ruined by these guys, and we all watch for a bit. Then the cops get the upper hand and start breaking it up. Dominick says something and everybody laughs, even the guy he hit with the pool cue. Dom has that effect on people. Bill comes away with a bloody lip, but he saved the pool table this time. He’s got to feel good about that.

It just goes to show you, Ostrans, never play pool with a couple cops.
     Ostrans looks around at us. I don’t have all night, he says. He smiles. Orders another whiskey on the rocks with Bill, leaves his money on the bar this time. We can see he’s catching on.
     After we got done yelling at Monty that night, we followed Donnie down the Elmwood Avenue hill, across a couple busy intersections, around the traffic circle at Delaware Avenue, which at that time of night was not a safe place to be, even for us. Now, by this time, it’s nearing ten-thirty. Lights from the buildings and streetlamps right on us. In those days, a lot of the warehouses and factories up here worked around the clock. Donnie heads away from us, toward downtown. We shout at him, tell him to hold up. We’re running after him by this time.
Here’s a kid from our neighborhood, up to who knows what at that hour, but we didn’t want to let him go. We wanted in on his deal, to tell you the truth. We wanted to know what the hell was up with him and his scary-ass old man and our lady of the scarves and his little idiot brothers and sisters. We shout at him again.
     Suddenly, our man Donnie Jack stops. He actually stops in front of this old building, old red brick warehouse built in the late 1800s for a glass manufacturing business. Now, it houses some kind of social services. But back then when we were kids, it was a machine shop. It hummed like a gigantic bird during the day, high-pitched whining from machines cutting steel or boring holes in sheets of plastic with a solid, hissing thunk like a dart hitting a board.
     At this time of night, the shop was quiet and we all stood in its doorway, out of the wind that cut down Elmwood. Donnie stood there with us and we all just kind of stood around with him. It’s hard to say why Donnie stopped when he did for us. He never had before. Maybe he just got tired of listening to us nagging at him. Maybe he got enough of that from our lady of the scarves all day at home and he didn’t need any more from us.
     Whatever the reason, there we all were, looking at each other. We kicked at the brick walls and we leaned our shoulders into them, like we hung out here all the time. Some of us watched the sidewalks outside the doorway and there it was, as soon as you could look that November, it started to rain. Those drops hit heavy and hard on the sidewalk and we counted the drops to ourselves until we lost count.
     Then Donnie, he makes a move. We watch him go real slow for his inside jacket pocket. We think, shit, he’s got some smokes. Then, good old Donnie Jack, he brings out a bag of dope and one rolling paper. We all look at him and he looks at us, smiles.
He rolls a joint, licks it closed, rolls up the bag and puts it back in his pocket, passes the joint and his lighter to Scottie who stood watching him like a hawk over his shoulder. We can see it like it was happening in this room, Ostrans. We never knew where he got it from. We didn’t know what he was trying to tell us. He wasn’t a big talker. In case you haven’t noticed, not many of us around here are.
     We finish the joint. We don’t want it to seem like we don’t know what the hell is going on. But there it was. Little, skinny, rabbity Donnie Jack got us, the corner bunch, on our first high, turned on, and it was only 1965. We didn’t see him leave out the doorway. We don’t remember much, except that everything got funny. We were soaked through and frozen by the time we got home. But we’ll never forget, never, how he tried so hard to be friends, how it got through to us.
     Last call, Bill says. Three-thirty, time to cough up and go home. I’m closing on time this morning, exactly at four. Let’s go. He goes out back and Ostrans chugs his whiskey.
Don’t worry about it, Ostrans, we say. He says that every night. We’ll be here until the sun comes up.
     Ostrans runs his finger through a puddle of ice-water, drawing a circle on the bar.
     All right, he says.
     That’s the last time we ever saw Donnie, we say. November, 1965. It was a month like this only it seemed we were all a lot luckier then. We all had something we wanted to be besides drunk in the morning.
     You want to know what happened to Donnie Jack, we say, go take a look outside, take a look around this place. You know when it’s cold enough outside you can see your own breath, you can gauge the temperature pretty close. So, this is a neighborhood of empty homes and storefronts waiting for the second coming. Full of ghosts, live and dead. When you live in a neighborhood where you can see your own ghost, you can gauge the future pretty close, too.
We’re waiting for something to come back here, Ostrans. Something clean, something that won’t mind flying all the way up here to the top of the Elmwood hill to stay a while, light one up and let us feel like we get lucky at least once more in this life.
Maybe you should tell us what happened to Donnie Jack. If you can see what we can’t.
Don’t ask me, Ostrans says. Not much to see around here, not much to wait for or come home to, in my opinion. But it don’t matter what I think.
    That about sums it all up then, we say. What we can’t tell Ostrans is that the Donnie Jack we know would never wait around for somebody’s
sister. He’s living on his own time, outside, and we kind of like the idea of leaving it that way with him kind of a secret, our secret.
     Later on, maybe about six-thirty or so, we all file out of Bill’s and stand around on the sidewalk while he turns all the lights out and locks up. Ostrans walks down the street a ways. He’s weaving a little, but not too bad for a man who doesn’t drink. Maybe he’ll head past the tattoo and piercing parlor, maybe toward the old Jack residence, check out the place and see if it feels like something to come back to.
     We see Ostrans walk under his own power all the way downhill, while the east brightens to orange and the heavy clouds look like someone shot them through with a paint gun. Ostrans hears us shout and turns. He waves, we wave. He keeps walking, walking off the drunk he got. We all go home thinking we’d see him back at Bill’s, but Bill said later that his truck was gone by noon.
     And us? We’re back at Bill’s watching the game. Outside, it starts to snow.

Fiction Archives

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