Darrell, In Milwaukee
Years ago, I walked into a grocery store parking lot and saw this awesome blue van that had an old camper shell framed into its top, curtains on the windows, and one undersized spare tire.
The van became a feature in my story “Darrell, In Milwaukee,” published by CLOVER, A LITERARY RAG in the Winter 2013 v6 issue. It was the first story of mine that CLOVER published, and it always will be a very sweet memory to have worked with the marvelous editors, Mary Elizabeth Gillilan and Norman Green. CLOVER retired last year and sold out its back issues, so I’m putting the “Darrell” story here in its entirety. I hope you have half the fun reading it that I did writing it!
Guy name of Ken—that Darrell knew from around—had picked up a ’62 blue Chevy van at the junkyard run by that Dakota fellow. Ken cut out the roof of the van and framed in the top section of a camper shell he found at the same junkyard. Most of the camper windows were busted out and had plywood over, but the van had all its windows so a guy could still see out the sides if he hunkered down a bit.
Not bad, Darrell said, when he first saw it.
The Chevy’s engine ran rough and one of the front wheels was an under-size spare, but Ken rarely drove it farther than the mini mart for cold ones. Which he and Darrell drank while sitting on the lawn chairs Ken kept in the van. Sometimes they watched TV. Ken ran an extension cord out the laundry room window of his house and in through one of the van windows to plug in a portable set. But then Dot grew embarrassed by that wreck of a—well, she hardly knew what to call it, and right there in the driveway where everyone could see. She told Ken it went or she went.
I’ll go a buck and a quarter, Darrell said. About half what Ken was into it for. But Dot wasn’t happy, which meant Ken wasn’t happy, so he told Darrell, You’re an asshole, and handed over the key.
Darrell felt a freedom in the Chevy. He’d been without wheels for a while and liked that he could go somewhere and his new house came, too. The first place he drove was to the Y to collect his gear and ask for a refund on a week’s rent. Against policy, but Mickey was good that way and handed him the cash right back.
Going off with la mujer? Mickey asked.
Darrell had sneaked the same gal up to his room a couple nights. Also against the rules but, unlike the weekday manager, Mickey never hassled a guy.
Ain’t seen her around, Darrell said. I think she quit at Goldmann’s.
The elevator was still broken, but to keep fit, Darrell liked to take the stairs anyway. He got his duffle bag out of the fourth-floor room and jogged back down the steps.
Buena suerte, Mickey said, when Darrell went by him again to leave.
You too, Darrell said, and held out his hand.
He spent what Mickey gave him and then some on a used rim and tire for the Chevy. Since getting to Milwaukee, he’d been taking day jobs, banging nails, pouring concrete, but it was time for a step up. After swapping out the wheel, he went to see about a job driving backhoe for the same outfit Ken worked for.
The job was to dig out one of the foundation holes for a pair of reinforced concrete towers that would be office buildings. The towers had to be ready for the Bicentennial 4th of July fanfare, and the job foreman said there was pressure from up top to finish the dirt work ahead of schedule.
Darrell told how he’d run the only backhoe on a big job up in Sheboygan, and he had a reference on official company stationery.
We got to go hard or go to hell, the foreman said.
That don’t bother me, Darrell said.
They shook hands and the next morning Darrell walked onto the dig site.
City lets us make noise between eight and four, Slim told Darrell.
Slim was the other backhoe driver.
Lunch is whenever the puke wagon shows up.
Sounds pretty standard, Darrell said.
They went over to the Poclain that Darrell would be running.
Slim picked at his ear. I’m gonna have you start digging on the south hole, he said, as if he’d been the one to decide and they both knew otherwise. Darrell kept a poker face when the foreman walked up and Slim had to quit pretending.
Darrell climbed into the cab of the Poclain, which he’d found out from Slim was a European rig the foreman had picked up on a trade. The bucket was wider than usual but otherwise it had a slick setup. The foreman had marked out where he wanted the south ramp going into the hole and Darrell got to it, setting a pace that had the dirt haulers moving. Altogether noisy as hell, not to mention hotter than hell inside the cab, but Darrell liked the power of the big trackhoe. How he could guide the shovel to knock away the packed earth and then scoop it up and plunk it right into the back of the waiting truck, just as smooth as if he was dropping in handfuls of dirt, but with massive each shovel-full he could see a difference in the deepening hole. The trackhoe left its mark. Just like the tower going into the hole would leave its mark, growing up out of the ground like a tree putting down its roots.
At break time, Darrell got in line at the puke truck. He bought a roast beef sandwich and a bag of peanuts, smiled at the chunky gal working the window. She reminded him of this nurse he’d met in Nam. Over in the shit, as he thought of it. The one time he got shot was in the shoulder and the doctors decided to leave the bullet in. The nurses, the one gal in particular, had been real sweet to him. A helluva gal, wide end and all—if he’d been telling someone he would’ve held his hands apart to show just how wide, but meant it in a nice way, because when it was all said and done she’d been the settle-down type a guy might’ve put down roots for if he could.
On his day off, Darrell worked on the Chevy. He spent the morning replacing the timing chain and got the engine running pretty smooth. For inside he used scrap wood to build a box bench that would be good for storage and sleeping. Then he wanted a shower, which Ken had been letting him use while Dot was out getting her hair done. Erecting the beehive, Ken called it, but in a way that let on he was still sweet on her after ten years. This time she got home a little early and accidentally walked in on Darrell lathering up. To say the least, she was not happy about it.
To get back on her good side, Darrell offered to help Ken redo the bathroom, which Dot had been wanting. They pulled the old shower and put in a fancy one delivered by the Dakota. Pulling a contact on a day job he’d worked, Darrell got Ken a good deal on some tile so there was enough left in the budget for the oak sink cabinet Dot had her eye on at the home supply. She warmed up quite a bit over that. When the bathroom was done, she said Darrell could use the shower again and also got in her head to sew him curtains for the Chevy. At first it was funny, but Darrell had to admit they made things look homey. Dot still didn’t like the Chevy in the driveway, so Darrell parked at the end of the block when he visited and they all got along fine after that.
Take a Komatsu, for instance, Ken was saying. Some might say they build shit, but they build a good excavator, even if you might say under-powered.
It was after work and a few of the crew were at the A-Frame, a couple blocks from the work site. Poor excuse for a bar with only outdoor tables and the one homely bar gal, but the beers were cold. Darrell set his empty beer mug down on the wooden picnic table and held up three fingers until the gal nodded. He and the boys had been talking about the job—their other main topic aside from gals and government.
A lot of it’s economically driven and all that, how they build the new equipment, Ramon said.
Ramon had a way of talking real slow that could get a guy tapping his foot, but Darrell had to admit junior knew how to hustle. Ramon now worked under Ken, who’d got promoted to lead mechanic last week.
They all thought Slim was a rough operator.
Point is, you might say Slim is a mule in the kitchen, Ken said. He’s gonna rip that Case apart he ain’t careful.
A jackass is cute when it’s young, Ramon said in his same drawl.
That busted all three of them up. They laughed harder when Slim and his buddies showed up and took over the end of their table.
What’s so funny, Slim said.
You had to be there, Darrell told him.
Slim tossed a small bag on the table.
What’s that? Darrell said to go along.
Genuine Indian arrowheads, Slim said, only he said ‘Injun.’
You got those here?
Slim picked his ear.
Hell, I dug up Cochise for all I know, he said.
On a Saturday, Jake came in from Whitewater, where he’d been framing tract houses. Darrell was glad to see him. He liked Ken and the boys at work just fine, but when it came down to it, Jake was his best friend. They’d been together in Nam and that bond stays. Jake wanted to go get his kid, who wanted to go to the zoo again.
Been here so many times they should let us in for free, Darrell said.
They got hotdogs at the concession, then the kid tore off running for the zebra pen.
Jake said, as if it’d been a long while since they’d seen her, but it was just last week, Can you believe that little tyke? Looks more and more like Celia, right down to that hair.
Any luck with the sister? Darrell asked.
Jake shook his head no.
The sister—the kid’s aunt on her mother’s side—had custody. Never mind the kid pitched a fit every time Jake had to leave her. The deal was, the kid wasn’t Jake’s blood. He and the kid’s mother had never outright married, so when Celia died—weak heart—the kid went to her older sister by law. When the sister brought the kid from California out to Wisconsin, Jake up and followed, and he and Darrell of course got in touch. Darrell considered it luck in some respects.
He told Jake about finding Indian bones in the foundation holes, how he didn’t think it was so right to just dig them up but what could you do?
Cochise and them had been soldiers. They’d been in the shit, too, just over here, he said.
Jake of course got what he meant.
The kid wanted to ride one of the stripy horses.
Might buck you off, Darrell told her.
She didn’t think so but settled for a ride on Jake’s shoulders. He hopped around and she spit up hotdog on his head.
Oh shit, Jake said. Don’t tell your aunt.
Oh shit, the kid said.
You don’t say that, sweetie. Jake told her. He used his tee shirt to clean off her face.
One morning Darrell got to work and heard Slim talking about how there was a new office gal. Red-haired. When Darrell went by the trailer to pick up his paycheck, there she was on a step-stool putting papers in a filing box. Darrell said he didn’t mind waiting for her to finish. Her name was Mona.
How about you and me go out sometime, he said.
I know your type, she said. Here one day and gone the next.
I’m aiming to stick around, Darrell told her. Put down some roots.
Maybe, she said.
He said, Mona’s gonna, making the words rhyme, and got her laughing.
They went for pizza at a joint uptown where the cooks hand-tossed the dough. Mona had on a pink skirt that rode up her hips when she slid into the wooden booth.
Can we get pepperoni and olives, she said.
Whatever you want, Darrell told her.
Darrell went up to the counter and gave their order.
So anyway, Mona said when he got back, I told Bettina—that was her roommate—that it already wasn’t fair because we both pay the same rent but her room has a closet.
Mona took a lipstick out of her purse. She looked at her reflection in the metal napkin holder to draw on her lips.
Darrell looked at those pink lips.
At the bottom of it, she’s probably jealous of you, he said.
Why do you think?
She’s not half as pretty.
Their pizza came and they ate it. Mona put on more lipstick. Darrell said more times how pretty she was. Like Marilyn Monroe.
She was naturally a redhead, he told Mona. To my thinking, she would’ve been prettier if she’d stayed that way.
You’re full of it, she said.
That night she went back to the Chevy with him.
Slim came up at the lunch truck while Darrell was waiting for a turkey on rye, the day’s special.
Keep away from her, Slim said. He looked mad enough to take a swing.
Not your business, Darrell told him.
He paid for his sandwich and peanuts, keeping one eye on Slim.
It might have gone up a level right there, but the foreman was nearby and Slim backed off. A couple days later, Darrell’s time card got messed up. Then the Chevy got a flat tire sitting in the parking lot.
Some legs on that one, Ramon drawled. No wonder Slim is pissed.
Roommate’s worth a tap, Darrell told him. I could introduce you.
What’s her name?
A couple days later, one of the Poclain’s tracks went out. Slim probably wasn’t behind it—that would have been over the line even for him. Either way Darrell got a day off waiting for parts. He put on a clean shirt and found the main library on Wisconsin Ave. Inside he asked for a book on Cochise and the little library gal—cute as hell even if she was a good six months along—knew right where to look. She was nice and gave Darrel the form to fill out for a library card.
Darrell rather enjoyed lolling in the Chevy that afternoon reading about Cochise. According to the library book, the Apache chief came from Arizona not Wisconsin. Darrell felt relieved they hadn’t dug up Cochise, but he got fired up reading about this Bascom deal.
That Lieutenant Bascom, you know the type, blamed Chochise for stealing this kid when Cochise didn’t have anything to do with it. Darrell told this story to the guys at work and again to Jake at the zoo. This was when he was telling Jake, and Jake asked, Who was the boy?
Indians, not Apache, kidnapped some bigwig’s step kid and took some livestock. When Bascom couldn’t figure out who did it, he pinned it on Cochise.
I hope the chief wins, Jake said.
Things were going fine at work. Darrell was three quarters done digging the hole, running a good day ahead of schedule. He’d pretty near caught up with Slim and it was turning into a race. The foreman said there might be a spot for Darrell to stay on after the dirt work was done.
In the evening Darrell was going back to the Chevy carrying a sack of burgers, a couple Schlitz and milk for a stray cat that hung around. With some money in his pocket, he thought of heading over to a drive-in theater he knew was playing a Lee Marvin shoot’em-up.
Before he was across the parking lot, damned if there weren’t three of them, one slapping a length of wood against his palm. Darrell stopped under a lamppost. Too late to be sorry for parking in the same lot every night. The manager at the mini mart had been agreeable after Darrell helped him re-hang a side door and put in a couple new windows. It was so handy, like tonight, to go over for a sandwich or burritos, and there was a toaster oven.
Slowly he set the bag down without taking his eyes off the lineup. Slim wasn’t with them.
What’s this about? Darrell asked.
The guy in the middle pointed the piece of wood at Darrell’s chest.
You know damn well.
Darrell had to think.
Charlene? he finally guessed, remembering the gal from the Y.
Knocked up, the guy said.
That aspect wasn’t me, Darrell said.
It didn’t matter because her old man was looking to hand out an ass kickin’.
Darrell shrugged. Let’s go then, he said.
He took the first round of blows pretty well and gave back plenty of of his own. He felt his cheek split when Charlene’s old man whacked it with the wood. Being there were three of them, and he’d been caught by surprise to begin with, Darrell got in a couple more good licks, but felt himself losing when they got him down on the ground. For the first time since Nam he felt really scared.
He was laid up in the Chevy for nearly a week. He knew when he didn’t show up for work that his job would go to someone else. He voted for Ramon. A few times he limped over to the mini mart for supplies. The stray cat would let him pick it up and he didn’t mind the company. Once he called Mona’s number from the pay phone outside the mini mart. He got the roommate, who said Mona wasn’t back yet from a dancing class.
Tell her sorry I missed her, Darrell said.
Well, bye, the roommate said.
Jake eventually showed up.
You look like hell, he said.
Coulda used you a few days ago, Darrell said. So much for Slim, he told Jake. Kinda odd how you expect one thing and it turns out to be a whole other deal.
I heard from Glenn, Jake said.
That was a buddy of theirs from Nam who’d been working the mills around Lake Winnebago.
He says there’s plenty of work and the pay is good, Jake said. Did Darrell want to go in on a vehicle and try their luck at the mills?
What happened to your truck, Darrell asked, just now thinking of it.
The kid had needed some things.
What do you think? Jake said, meaning about the mills.
Chevy’s running good enough, Darrell said.
They talked it out, and when it came down to it, they might as well leave now.
Jake said they could get his kid on the way out of town. For good this time.
How’d you get the sister to go along with that?
Jake smiled, which he rarely did.
Little tyke’s been raising a ruckus and then wouldn’t eat. When the sister tried to make her, she up and bit her, he said.
The sister lived in South Milwaukee in a duplex she rented with a cousin. Darrell drove down South Kinnickinnic until it ran out at Layton and then took the backstreets through Cudahy to reach the sister’s place, wedged in between Lake Michigan and the airport. Jake went in and came back out with the kid clamped onto him like she didn’t mean to let go. Her brown curls stuck out all over.
Darrell had to hand it to the teensy gal who’d fought so hard to be with Jake. Blood or not, she was just like him. It all made a guy think. Darrell cleared a spot on the box bench for her to sit.
Let’s go before the old gal changes her mind, Jake said.
Darrell got back behind the wheel and pulled out into the street. The Chevy’s gas gauge didn’t work, but he guessed half a tank. Before leaving town he swung by the library and dropped the book in the outside return box. He felt sorry for not reading all the way to know where Cochise wound up.
Many, many thanks to my talented cousin Ramon Goitiandia, who helped me with the backhoe material, and to construction expert Ken Will, who advised on the construction scenes. And to the awesome writers who read and offered advice as I worked on the story: Yael Abel, Michael Jaime-Becerra, Dave Billings, Charlie Jensen, Andrew Shattuck McBride, Kirsten Menger-Anderson, Cate Perry, Robert Steven Williams, and to Dagoberto Gilb for giving the world Mickey.
XO Laurel Leigh