The story starts in a working class neighborhood in the shadows of downtown Jacksonville. Among a row of houses where the families live week to week and at times day to day a young man of eight sits on the porch. A sidewalk ran corner to corner and provided a safe boundary between the porches and street.
A large geranium in full bloom sat at the corner of the porch. A glider swing, rocking chair, and several large flower pots filled the porch. Like most houses on the street this was a rental housing two families. One lived upstairs and one downstairs. Paint peeled from the gray wooden porch floor. It was mid-summer so it would be some time before the street lights lit up the sidewalk and deep shadows filled the porch.
This was a neighborhood even the cops avoided on Friday nights. It was Tuesday so things were quiet. Just off the corner of the porch were the boy was sitting was a giant oak. The roots had started to push the sidewalk up around the base. It was summer in Jacksonville and the heat and humidity did not disappoint. The young boy lay on the slider swing and looked up at the ceiling. He often spent this time of day daydreaming and getting lost in his thoughts. He often felt strange with an overwhelming feeling of not belonging. Too many times he had a sense of being a stranger in his own home.
Five o’clock was coming and the men would be coming home from work, which meant his father would be coming home anytime. The man of this house would be returning from a day of cleaning windows on the high-rises that could be seen in the distance from the porch. The work was hard, dangerous, and paid minimal wage. His father was often angry and usually coming home with a buzz. The men kept the heat at bay by keeping at least one window cleaning bucket filled with ice and beer. The minimal pay was balanced by the freedom of being high above the ground all day away from the world below moving along the sidewalks. At least looking down on the men and women, moving about in their shirts, ties, skirts, and heels, made them feel a little more than minimal. The boy never knew what kind of mood his father would be in when arriving home from work. He did know his mood would control the evening.
It was no wonder that a common daydream laying on the porch swing was of running away from home. At night the most common dream was of being a soldier in the war and hiding from the enemy in a snow cave. It wasn’t until many years later while going through analysis that he came to understand the meaning of this dream. Seeking comfort in the confines of a cold snow cave was a strange way to seek the comfort of the womb.
The boy was small and thin. At eight years old he had already seen more than most. He sat on the steps starring out past the sidewalk and watching for his father’s car to come down the street. The sound of the engine was not normal. His father was not going to be happy when the door of that 1951 Ford swung open. After a day hanging above the sidewalks of Jacksonville he was not going to be in a good mood. Wearing blue work pants, a lighter blue work shirt, boots, and a squeegee holster hanging from his belt he looked tired and mad.
The car had to be running come 5:30 in the morning because an entire window cleaning crew was depending on the ride. Keeping an old car running seemed like a constant task for the young boy’s family. He knew he would be busy in a matter of minutes. After a couple of more beers it was time to raise the hood and get the car back in good working order. The boy’s job was to pass the tools, bring more beers from the house, and just be available to catch the frustration.
The tool box sat next to the large Oak tree and was filled with tools and most importantly a beer can opener. This was a time before pull tabs when a man had to keep a can opener handy. The Ford’s hood was raised and the work began to diagnose the problem. After some time the carburetor was the culprit and needed some adjustment. As with older cars rust and stuck bolts were the norm. As the boy’s father always said, you can’t fix a car until you bang your knuckles a few times. For a boy of eight he had a good working knowledge of wrench sizes and most of the tools in a shade tree mechanic’s toolbox. It’s unlikely that most boys’ his age living in the suburbs would know a three quarter inch ratchet from a crescent wrench.
Even less likely that they could match his ability to open a can of beer. He had been making beer runs on Friday nights for some time now and was well known at the local pub. He would work the neighborhood for beer orders and pull his red wagon up the hill to the corner pub. The routine was to go around to the back door and place the order. After paying for the beer the bartender would often slip him a bag of chips and a coke. He had to be pretty quick to get the beer back down the street before it was too warm and he caught hell from his customers. Most of the men would slip him anywhere from a dime to a quarter depending on their level of intoxication. By the end of the night he could make a pretty good haul for an eight year old. He always had a pocket full of change and more money than most boys twice his age. It was not unusual to loan grown men money until payday and he would always collect his debt before they had a chance to hit the pub. At times he even loaned mom and dad money when the bill collectors showed up at the door wanting to take the television back to the store.
So it is easy to see that a little cussing and fuming about a stuck bolt on a carburetor was no big deal. He was sitting starring into the toolbox of shiny wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers, and pliers when he heard the yell and more cussing than usual. About that time a 9/16 inch wrench whizzed by his head and slammed against the tree. His father turned around holding his left hand tightly in his right. The dark red blood was flowing freely. This was more than the typical banged knuckle. All hell would certainly break loss now because this car had to be on the road at daybreak. Families that lived payday to payday could not afford the luxury of a missed day from work and more than one family depended on this Ford.
The cut was deep and on the working hand of a left handed man. Even the boy understood the serious of this situation. After some more swearing and throwing tools the boy was sent into the house to get the sewing box. This was a time when sewing needles came packaged in assortments. There were always at least two very large needles in each package. The boy and his father sat side by side on the sidewalk. The blood was flowing freely by this time and formed a puddle in the sand. A greased stained rag wrapped around the cut and slowed the bleeding. The boy was told to fetch a set of needle nose pliers from the toolbox and thread one of the large needles with a double wrapping of the black sewing thread. Even at eight years of age he knew this was not a good idea. He had been around enough Friday night fights between the men in the neighborhood to know you went to the hospital for stitches. It was not uncommon on any given Friday or Saturday night for someone to climb in a car and head to the emergency room for stitches. Was he actually going to sew up his own hand sitting here on the sidewalk? His hands were covered in black grease and deep red blood.
The boy threaded the largest needle in the package with a double string of black thread. At least the thread matched the grease. His father took the threaded needle in hand and examined the wound. It was plenty deep and the cut was jagged. The boy knew there was no doubt he would be helping him sew up the wound. There would be no trip to the hospital or even calling one of the neighborhood men over to assist in the sidewalk makeshift surgery. It would be the boy and his father doing this task. Showing any fear or hesitation would not be acceptable and would lead to a whipping.
The whole situation was in some ways surreal and in others par for the course. It wasn’t like this was that out of character for what went on in this house. The boy’s mind started to wander as a way to keep it all together. As his thoughts drifted the large needle reminded the young boy of the Pen Cushion man from the state fair. Every year when the fair was in town the carneys hung out at the boy’s house. It seems that window cleaners and carneys ran in the same social circles. When the fair was in town it wasn’t unusual for the carney’s to gather in the living room on Saturday night to drink beer and play penny poker. The boy had often received private showings of the sideshow acts in his living room. The Pen Cushion man would put the long needles through his biceps without hesitation. From memory it seemed simple enough so sewing up a hand shouldn’t be that different. This was a good thing because the boy was going to have to do the sewing. There had been too many beers and the cut was on the working hand of a left handed man.
The skin was much harder than he thought it would be and it took some serious pushing to get the needle through the first time. The black grease made the thread hard to see and the blood continued to flow freely. Sweat poured from the boy’s brow and his hands were shaking. It all seemed much easier when the Pen Cushion man was pushing the pens through his biceps on a Saturday night. The fear of doing this was overshadowed by the fear of not following instructions. There really was no choice but to continue with the sewing job at hand. It would take some time to sew up the wound. If the bleeding would just stop then the sewing could go easier. The boy lost all sense of time as each stitch seemed to take forever. The skin was like leather and sewing up a wound full of old car grease just seemed like a bad idea. Even the boy knew something about sanitation. In old TV westerns the cowboys always cleaned the wound with whiskey. There was no cleaning this wound as all the beer was going into his belly and wasn’t to be wasted.
The day wasn’t over because the carburetor was still sitting on the curb. The boy and his farther went back to the car after all night was coming and the car needed to be running at dawn. Now it was back to passing tools and listening to the steady stream of cuss words. Would this day ever end? The boy knew sooner or later the day would end just like so many other days in his life.
Tomorrow morning the boy would be walking to school and not telling anyone about this night. This would just be one of many stories he would not be telling. He was just much too young.
Gary Calhoun is a retired Clinical Psychologist, raised in Jacksonville Florida. Neither parent had a high school degree. His father was a window cleaner his entire life. His mother never worked outside the home. He is working on a memoir from first to fifth grade. He grew up in downtown Jacksonville to a very traditional Southern and Irish family. He currently live in Bonita Springs Florida.