My Summer Job
By David Ritchie
At 10:00 exactly, my grandfather honked his horn. I grabbed my ‘New Orleans’ straw hat and ran out the kitchen door into the alley where he was waiting in his old van. The sweet honeysuckle along my back fence briefly conflicted with the putrid smell of the sun-heated trashcans in the alley. The big, black van reminded me of a hearse, but I climbed in beside granddad every Saturday morning. It was my summer job.
He was a vegetable salesman, and, he too wore an old, white Jazz straw hat that was de rigueur in New Orleans. And without the smell of Red Man chewing tobacco, he wouldn’t be the same person. Granddad lifted the sides of the van and then propped them open when he was parked on a street for business.
I have always wanted to be like Granddad. He always has money in his pocket and has a lot of friends. And I’ve never seen him in a suit and tie. He drinks beer and has a new girlfriend every week. What I wouldn’t give to be like him.
My mother and father had always told me that he was a dangerous man. He drank too much and ran around with bad men. They told me I should pay more attention to getting an education and not have to sell vegetables from a van in the summer and work in the commercial fishing fleet in the bad weather months. Drinking, working on boats, girls. I can tell you, that’s exactly what I wanted to do.
Galveston, Texas was hot in the summer, but being an island, the humid Gulf winds cooled us some. Most of the women wore sundresses, and the men mostly T-shirts. Our day consisted of an exact route from which granddad seldom varied. We went first to the street behind the old, garish, Bishop’s House. The house was huge, painted a pale shade of pink, and it was a Galveston landmark since all the tourists had to pass it when entering the city.
Granddad stopped, went to the street-side of the van and propped the side open. By the time this was done, a line of customers halfway down the street had formed. As usual, all were men. They wore baggy pants and the string-shoulder type of undershirt. Most were dark skinned, and wore thongs on their tanned feet.
"Hey, Slim! Bring that boy along to help you count your money, did ya?"
‘Slim’ was my granddad’s street name. He was 6’4" and weighed about 250 lbs. His name was Claude, but no one, and I mean no one, called him that.
Granddad pulled a huge knife out of his back pocket and waved it at the guy.
"Betsy here is the one who counts my money, boys! You only get one chance with her!"
I thought that was so cool.
The whole group howled. My granddad was as ornery and tough as they come, and they liked him.
"Royce, what you want today? Light or dark?" Granddad asked.
A wiry old guy, his face a dried up riverbed, stepped up and croaked.
"Two of the light ones, Slim. Same price?"
"Yep. Boy pull that top drawer out and hand me two jars" Granddad said to me.
I moved the yellow squash aside and pulled open the top of two hidden drawers. I extracted two small mason jars with a clear liquid in them.
He snapped open a paper bag, put the two jars in the bottom and put a few vegetables on top.
The line diminished rapidly with me pulling the jars and granddad taking the money. We closed the side of the van and drove to our second spot. It was near West Beach, and a block off the waterfront. The houses there were all white, and built up off the ground due to the floods from hurricanes. Most of the windows had shutters, but these were kept open during the summers. And the little palm trees were bent slightly landward, away from the Gulf of Mexico just a few hundred feet away. It felt cooler, and the salt smell was strong. There were big clouds with anvil bottoms in contrast to the pale blue of the sky. There was another long line waiting for us.
"Hey, Thump." Granddad said to a huge man.
"Vegetables lookin’ good today, man!" The man said at an attempt at humor.
"You’re still the ugliest guy on the island though!" Said one of the other men in the line.
They all laughed. However, the little guys all stepped back, one never knew how ole Thump would react. Today he laughed, too.
Later, when there were still two or three men in the line, I saw them move away slowly. Like they were just passing by.
"Get in the van, boy."
At no time did I question grandad, ask him ‘why’, sass him, or fail to respond immediately. It was to take your butt in your own hands to do so. I was in the van in about two seconds. I saw a black and white Galveston Police car come to a quiet stop beside granddad.
"Hot, ain’t it, Slim?" Said the cop fanning himself with his hat.
Granddad nodded, then turned and spit tobacco juice.
"How’s the criminal life, loser?" Said the younger cop at the wheel of the car.
The other one gave him a quick, sharp look then turned to Granddad.
"You got any a’ that dark stuff left?" The other cop said in a much friendlier tone.
"You bet. How much you guys need?"
"It’s towards the end of the shift. Anything you can spare would be great, Slim."
Granddad opened the lower of the two drawers and pulled out four of the mason jars. He snapped open a bag.
"Don’t bother with the bag, old son, that stuff won’t live to see the sunset!" The older cop laughed at the joke.
Granddad handed them through the window, the cops opened the jars without delay, and started sipping. The danger here was thick, and even I could sense it. I saw Granddad’s right hand caress the knife in his back pocket several times during the encounter.
"How much we owe you?"
"One thin dime." ‘
"That way they cain’t say it was a gratuity, ya’ see." The older one said to the younger.
"Well, Slim, got the boy again this summer, huh?"
"Yeah, he does the pulling for me. Grandson. It’s his summer job!" Granddad said sharing a chuckle with the policeman he seemed to know.
"Gotta go, Ronnie. We’ll see you later."
"You bet. Make sure that boy learns to cook that stuff right! Wouldn’t do to have a bunch of rot gut on the street, you know."
Granddad smiled as they pulled away. The older cop waved.
Granddad put the side down and got in behind the wheel.
"Granddad, that scared me."
"Don’t worry, boy, those guys want it as much as the regulars, they just don’t like to pay for it. And I don’t mind, they pretty much stay away from me when I’m out selling my ‘vegetables’, you understand?"
I nodded, but my heart was pounding.
He put his big hand into his pocket, and as was his custom, flipped me a silver dollar. It was always the highlight of my day with Granddad. The heft of the silver dollar made me feel like I had a jewel or something special in my pocket. Sometimes I walked around with my hand in my pocket gripping the silver dollar. No few comments were made about how that looked.
"Boy, Royce invited us to stop by on the way home this afternoon. I wouldn’t mind listening to a little Cajun music and drinking a little shine. How about you? The music, I mean. Not the shine."
I had never been invited to do this before. I was ecstatic.
"Granddad, I’d really like to! I like Royce."
"Ok, but your mom and dad would be really pissed if they find out. Can you keep your mouth shut?"
"I ain’t worried so much about you dad, but, God Almighty have mercy on us both if your momma finds out! You know what I mean?"
"Yes—Sir." I said with understanding.
We parked the van about a block from Royce’s house. When we got to the house, we went around back to an old barn. Granddad opened the big front door, and we entered.
"Holy cow!" I said.
Inside was a sawdust floor and several picnic tables scattered around with red and white checked vinyl tablecloths on them. At some sat men playing dominoes or just listening to the music from a large, beautiful old jukebox. Along one wall were several iceboxes.
"One of those iceboxes is full of my corn liquor, boy." Granddad said, pointing with a sausage size finger.
I was unable to speak.
From a table in the corner, Royce motioned for us to come over.
"Hey, Slim. Sit down with us. Who’s your pal there?"
Granddad looked at me.
"Hi, Royce. Don’t you remember me? I’m his grandson. I work with him ever summer now. I saw you…"
"I’m jus’ kidden, son, I know who you are. Sit down with us a bit. Slim let you sip the stuff?"
I was confused, but just for a moment.
Royce acted very surprised.
"What! Slim, how’s this boy ever gonna grow up right!"
"His momma would kick my…." He didn’t finish.
As they talked, I could see men around me that looked dangerous. They had what momma called ‘jailhouse’ tattoos. Two stopped arm wrestling and stared at me. I wasn’t sure what they were thinking, but something instinctive made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I was afraid.
"Oh, hell. The boy’s here with friends. Let’s make a man out of him, huh? It’s only three o’clock; nobody’ll even know it happened. What do you say?"
All the other guys looked at us and encouraged granddad.
"Alright, let him try the clear stuff! Where’s it at Royce?"
The next thing I knew, a jar of the clear liquid was set in front of me. I was nervous and happy all at once.
As I brought the jar to my lips I could smell nothing. But when the liquid hit my tongue, it was boiling hot, or so I thought. There was no way l could let this stuff go down my throat. Some of it dribbled out, some of it spewed out. The entire room broke out in screaming laughter. I was mortified.
"Boy, don’t drink it like water!" Granddad said.
I watched him as he brought the jar to his mouth. First, he looked at the jar from several angles.
"Lookin’ for floatin’ pieces, so’s I can get ‘em out."
Then he brought the jar to his lips, and gently licked the screw part of the glass.
"Gets the drippin’s off, so’s it don’t drip down on your shirt."
The he makes a big deal out of smelling the liquid.
"Ahhhh. Then you smell the bouquet."
Well, this brought the house down. Even I got the joke now. And Granddad, smiling, sipped a small amount of the stuff.
I started tasting the hot liquid. That’s the last thing I recall clearly.
The sounds in the room became a whisper, like at Mass in a chapel with high ceilings. I could hear the noise but it didn’t quite reach my ears. The faces of all those around me morphed into replicas of a Dali painting. Melting faces with big round eyes. All sense of touch was lost. When I wrapped my fingers around the jar to have another sip, I had to use both hands to make sure I didn’t drip the precious liquid.
The most unusual thing, however, was my inability to speak English. My lips and cheeks were completely numb.
"Grahhhhh, mmy lppsss.."
They looked at me like I just stepped off a space ship. And then they laughed so hard I think one of them fell off the bench.
Granddad leaned over and wiped the drool off my chin and shirt.
"Told you it was good stuff, boy."
I was beyond speech. I saw Granddad’s face change several times as I looked at him. And it seemed that my head was moving side to side, under its own control.
"Royce, time to go. I better take the boy to the levee for some air before I take him home. Thanks for the invite, see you next Saturday, if not before."
Royce waved and nodded.
Granddad took me by the arm. I could see it but I couldn’t feel it, and I still had no speech.
"Boy, what’s your head nodding back and forth like that for?"
I couldn’t answer.
In the next instant, I was in the front seat of the van with my face in my lap.
"Good God, boy, sit up before you break your back will you?"
I knew he was talking to me, but I didn’t get the meaning of the words. Granddad was driving along the road to the East Levee with one big hand on the wheel and the other across my chest to hold me upright. I could see my arms jumping around like a rag dolls.
We parked near the water at the levee. Granddad came around and helped me out of the seat.
"Damn, son, your momma’s going to kill you. Right after she kills me.
He took me to the sandy beach and took off my shoes. He put my feet in the water hoping it would help sober me up. I threw up. I threw up with such force it surprised Granddad. He splashed saltwater on my face, took my shirt off, rinsed it in the gulf, and laid it on a levee rock to dry. It was so hot it would dry in minutes. Then he walked me around the beach, and this seemed to help some. I was starting to get my speech back.
"How you doing, stud?"
"Had a sip or two, boy. You’ll be fine in a few minutes."
"Yeah, she’ll be really pissed if we don’t get you up and around."
"Ok. I have a plan. When we get to your house, I’ll carry you in, and we’ll tell your momma that you are sleeping. I’ll put you in your bed and get the heck outta there. What do you think?"
All I could do was nod.
When we got in the van, the smell of booze, vomit, sweat, and chewing tobacco made me feel like I was going to throw up again.
Granddad parked the big van in the alley at the gate to our yard. As he carried me to the house, I could smell the putrid trashcans in contrast with the sweet honeysuckle.
My senses were dulled, but after he put me in my bed, I could hear voices.
" Boy worked hard today, and, brother was it hot. Just wore him out. Listen, I’d love to stay and talk, but got things I gotta do. Tell him to call me tomorrow."
That was the quickest exit Granddad had ever made.
I vaguely remember someone checking on me in the night, but I don’t think I moved at all until the next morning. Mother leaned into the room.
"C’mon, breakfast will be ready in two minutes."
God, that sounded terrible. Head hurts, and stomach’s cramping. But couldn’t let her get wind of last night’s events. I washed my face, went downstairs, and sat at the table with her.
"Momma, tell me again what you think I should be when I grow up."
David Ritchie is originally from Alabama, and now lives in the San Juan Islands of Washington.
© 2002, David Ritchie, All Rights Reserved