Fire Damage

Chicago, 1901

As Roy stepped into the street, he felt a pull on his arm. “What’s the matter, Theo?” he asked his son. Leaning against the building they were approaching was a young rough in a floppy flatcap, his hands deep in his pants pockets. His eyes were fixed on Theo. “Don’t be afraid,” said Roy. “That’s his job, to frighten people. But it’s all just for show.”

“What do you mean?” asked Theo.

“Well, his boss wants him to act tough, right? But when he goes home, I don’t see why he wouldn’t be nice to his family and friends.”

Roy crouched and looked into his son’s eyes. “Theo, I’m going to have to do some heavy lying in there. I don’t want you to think lying is okay. I just need more time to get work so we don’t find ourselves scraping by on the street.”

They finally crossed the street. Ignoring the man, Roy reached for the handle of the front door.

“Hey, kid,” said the man. “You look just like my cousin Danny. I thought you was Danny. That’s why I was starin’. Did I scare ya?” He pulled something from his pocket. “Let me make it up to you. Here’s a penny. There’s a candy store around the corner.”

Theo didn’t move.

“Go ahead,” said the man. “Take it.”

Theo looked up at Roy, who nodded. Smiling, Theo took the coin.

The grocery was owned by Roy’s landlord, Hedva Ruzek. The stone-fronted building, still smoke-stained under the eaves, was one of the few left standing in the neighborhood after the Great Fire. Suspicious types said her father bribed the fire department to give it top priority. Thirty years later, she lived with her husband on the second floor. Roy and Hedva got along fine, because he always paid the rent on time. That was about to change.

When Roy and Theo stepped inside, Hedva lowered her newspaper. “Rent was due yesterday. What’s the matter, you don’t have a calendar?” With her slicked-back hair, aquiline nose and pinched mouth, she resembled a raptor watching for prey.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Ruzek,” said Roy. “I need a little more time. I start a job at the rail yard tomorrow morning. I can pay you next week.” The now-taut paper started to tear, so Roy laid it on a little thicker. “You know I’ve never been late before. I promise it’ll never happen again.”

“Stop your sniveling.”

Roy gave Theo a wink as Hedva’s husband, who had been loading cans onto shelves and glaring, leaned over and whispered in her ear. She shook her head.

“My husband thinks you’re a cop,” said Hedva. “Are you a cop, Roy?”

“No.”

“That’s what I told him. Why do you suppose he thinks you’re a cop?”

“My brother used to be on the force. People say we look a lot alike.”

Looking satisfied, Hedva rocked her head back toward her husband, her eyebrows raised. “Roy, you’ve met my husband, Frank?”

“Yes.” Roy forced a smile. Frank gave him a sober nod and went back to the tins of ham hocks and beans.

“Now,” said Hedva, “about this job at the yard…which one is it, Illinois Northwestern?”

“Yeah.”

“What time do you start?”

He wasn’t expecting that. “Eight o’clock.”

“Doing what?”

Roy wished he had prepared for an interrogation. “Fixing track, I suppose.”

Hedva gave Theo a long, hard look. “What are you going to do with the boy?”

“He’ll stay home by himself. It won’t be a problem. He’s smart.”

Hedva cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled. “Hugo!”

The front door opened and the rough hustled in. “Yeah, Hedva?”

“This is Roy Kauffeld. Remember his face.”

Hugo looked Roy over, from his tousled black hair to his hollow-cheeked face and down along his wiry frame. He snorted when he saw Roy’s shoes. A lot of nerve, considering they were no worse than his. “Let me guess,” he said, “he’s a tenant in your building. Bunch of bums.” Roy kept from yawning at the tough-guy act.

“Just remember his face,” said Hedva. “He says he starts work at the Illinois Northwestern yard tomorrow morning at eight. I want you there at seven-thirty. Watch the gate and see if he goes in. Then report back to me.”

“Sure, Hedva.” Hugo scowled at Roy as he left. It was a hell of a scowl, granted, but within their quick, shared look was the recognition this had been a performance put on for the boss’s benefit. Could that even be a hint of a smile on Hugo’s lips?

Hedva spoke from behind her raised newspaper. “What are you still standing there for? I did you the favor.” Roy shrugged at Theo. As they walked out the door, Hedva yelled, “That story of yours better check out. It would give me no small joy to—.” A slam of the door kept them from hearing the rest.

They weren’t even across the street when Theo piped up. “You don’t have a job at the yard, Pop. That man will be looking for you.”

Roy was pleased his son was learning to see all the angles. “I know. I wasn’t counting on that.”

“What are we going to do?”

“I’ll have to go to the yard and try to get a job.”

“The yard is that way.” Theo pointed to the east.

“Hugo is probably watching us. It would look suspicious if we went that way.”

“Oh, yeah. We have to make this look good.”

The two hiked north for a couple blocks before heading east toward the yard.

All of the rail yards had a guard at the gate. There was too much at stake not to, with frequent reports of theft and vandalism to the tracks.

Roy and Theo approached the guard, who looked up from his notebook. “I want to talk to the boss about a job,” said Roy.

The guard gave him a skeptical squint, then said, “I’ll get the trainmaster. Stay put.”

Soon the trainmaster approached. He was an imposing figure, with a dark wool uniform stretched around his well-nourished torso and a brass-accented hat capping his leonine head. It all fit his authoritative demeanor as he, without even a hello, gave Roy the brush-off. “You should have been here in the morning.”

“Let me start tomorrow,” said Roy. “You won’t have to pay me for the first day. I’m a hard worker.”

“No pay, huh?” The trainmaster looked at Roy’s tattered shoes. “Are those your only shoes?”

“Yeah.”

“They won’t last a day here. Get ‘em patched up, and you have a deal.”

“Sure, I can do that.”

“Be here at seven.” With that he walked off.

Seven?

“Pop,” said Theo, “now Hugo won’t see you show up for your job.”

“Yeah, that’s a problem we need to fix. Any ideas, smart guy?”

“Tell Mrs. Ruzek you made a mistake. You thought your job started at eight, but you remembered it starts at seven.”

Roy laughed. “So, I just forgot. Well, I guess it’s about time you saw your old man look the fool. Let’s go.”

They arrived back at the store to find a “CLOSED” sign in the window of the locked door. Roy pressed his face to the glass. Frank was inside, still filling shelves. Roy rapped on the door until Frank turned around. Unsmiling, he marched over and pulled down the shade.

“Why did he do that, Pop?” asked Theo.

“I think I embarrassed him when I said I wasn’t a cop.”

“I’m sorry my idea didn’t work.”

“It was a good idea. Now I just have to ask somebody to go to the yard tomorrow morning and tell Hugo I’m already inside. Let me think. Somebody in the Loop…Freddy!”

They walked past building after building, all walled with brick veneers thanks to the fire limits enacted after the conflagration. When a delivery wagon rumbled past, Roy shot back to the harrowing night his family trudged up Van Buren toward the bridge as steam pumpers loaded with river water went by as fast as the spooked horses could run. Compared with that, Roy and Theo were in the pink.

Denkel’s Bakery operated in a squat, red-brick building with small windows. Approached from the front, it greeted patrons with the aroma of baking bread. To find Freddy, Roy and Theo went to the rear and were bowled over by the stench of horse manure.

Freddy was all smiles. He remembered Theo, even though it had been a few years. “Theo, this is Queen,” said Freddy, introducing the shaggy, swaybacked horse who’d walked up and nuzzled him. “Do you want to feed her a carrot?” Freddy reached into a burlap bag and pulled out a large carrot. “Here, hold it out to her.”

“When she gets close to your end,” added Roy, “let go before you get bit.”

“What can I do for you, Roy?” asked Freddy. He looked apologetic before Roy had finished asking his favor. “I’m sorry, Roy. I can’t. This is my last day minding the horses. Tomorrow morning I go on deliveries on the West Side.”

“Well, thanks anyway, Freddie. Good luck with the bread route.”

On they went, heading west toward the river. Some old rail cars—a mix of passenger cars and boxcars—languished on a stretch of track near the South Branch. What always struck Roy was how the cars were from an orphan train that moved children from Chicago to western cities, and here those same cars sat abandoned themselves. If their grandparents hadn’t taken them in, Roy and his brother, Alwin, might have been sent to Kansas City or Omaha. And now Alwin was living in one of the boxcars. That was some kind of irony—the painful kind.

“There it is,” said Roy. “Second car from the caboose.”

“He’s in there? Why doesn’t he come live with us, Pop?”

“I don’t know, Theo.”

Inside the car, Alwin slouched on a spindle chair with his feet propped on a slop jar, eating an apple. He was wearing his police uniform, still in good condition but soiled. His brown shoes, not police issue, looked practically new.

“Why is he dressed like that?” whispered Theo.

“I guess those are the only clothes he’s got,” Roy whispered back. Alwin must have heard them, because he jumped up, grabbed the edge of the car’s sliding door and pulled until his neck veins bulged. It was a mighty effort, but the door frame was rusted in place. “Alwin, it’s me!” shouted Roy.

Alwin, looking relieved, helped pull them onboard. Aside from needing a shave and a bath, he looked good.

“Why don’t you get back on the force, Alwin?” asked Roy. “It could be very lucrative. Lots of shakedowns happening on the Near North Side.” Roy didn’t scruple to encourage him, only because he hated the thought of Alwin living in a freight car the rest of his life.

“No,” said Alwin, “they’d put me back on night patrol. I can’t sleep during the day. Patrolman Hickey has hung up his badge for good.”

“Who’s patrolman Hickey?” Theo whispered to Roy, who waved him off.

“Listen, Alwin,” said Roy, “I need your help. You know where the Illinois Northwestern yard is, right?”

“Yeah, I been there. One time we had a juicy tip. A guy from Oak Lawn was gonna kidnap his wife’s lover, who was on a crew there, and just as—”

“Can you tell me that story some other time? I start a job there tomorrow morning, and somebody is gonna be checking on me. I need you to vouch for me. So, it’s good you still have your uniform—but you should probably brush it or something. Can you be there at 7:30?”

“No! That’s east of State. They’ve got electric streetcars over there now. They took out the cable. It’s all electric. Six hundred volts! It’ll fry you like a knackwurst.” Alwin shook his head slowly like a witness to a tragedy. “Roy, you turn that job down. With your schooling, you can get something better anyway.” Just because Roy had finished high school and was an avid reader, Alwin seemed to think he was the next Isaac Newton. In fact, Roy often wondered what he would have become had he not been forced to abandon his college plans. After their grandparents died, someone had to take care of the wayward Alwin—when he wasn’t at the state reform school in Pontiac.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Roy.

“Haven’t you seen the sparks?” said Alwin loudly, waving his arms. “It’s in the wires above the cars. It goes right through to the tracks.”

“People ride in those cars all the time. They don’t get hurt.”

“Sure, they’re inside and protected. But you risk your life walking across those tracks. No, there’s nothing you can say to get me to the yard.”

Roy, deflated, eyed Alwin’s shoes. “Alwin, where did you get those fine shoes?”

“We had a fella die a while back. They fit me the best, so I got ‘em.” Alwin lifted and pivoted his right foot admiringly.

“You see mine? They won’t let me work in ‘em. I need you to switch shoes with me. As soon as I can, I’ll take you over to Tomasino’s and pay him to make you new ones. Better than those.”

Alwin silently stared into the distance, as though he could see through the wall of the car.

“Alwin,” said Roy, “do I have to twist your arm? What are you thinking about?”

“I was trying to remember…is Tomasino’s east of State?”

Roy’s face relaxed into a smile. “Are you kiddin’ me? He’s two blocks from here. You won’t be anywhere near those tracks.”

“Okay, I’ll do it. I’ve never liked brown shoes anyway.”

The men swapped shoes. Alwin looked contented, so Roy motioned to Theo to climb down from the car.

“Those sparks are going to start another fire,” said Alwin. “Maybe you can do something about it, Roy. Will you do something about it?”

“Sure, Alwin, I’ll see what I can do.”

Roy and Theo followed a weedy path away from the train, pushing through velvet leaf and burdock. “Pop,” said Theo, “is Uncle Alwin’s last name Hickey? Why isn’t it Kauffeld?”

It was a good question, but one Roy wasn’t keen to answer. “Remember I told you about the Great Fire and how it spread fast because all the buildings were wood?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, Ma and Pa were leading Alwin and me toward the river to escape. Before we reached the bridge, Alwin got scared. Pa told him to keep going, but he wouldn’t budge. Pa even tried frog-marching him, pushing from behind. Nothing worked. Then Pa started to walk away to see if Alwin would follow.”

“Did he?”

“He started to, but the front wall of a burning building fell onto the street and landed on Ma and Pa. Killed them both. Ever since then, Alwin hasn’t been the same.”

“Why?”

“I guess he blames himself.”

“It wasn’t his fault. Your pa should’ve picked him up and carried him.”

Roy remembered Alwin looking up at his father. Maybe he was thinking, Pick me up, Pa. Why don’t you pick me up? That would have changed everything.

“Pop,” said Theo, “you were there, too, but you’re the same.”

The falsity of this jarred him, but Roy didn’t let on. “I’m glad you think so.”

“But why is Uncle Alwin’s last name Hickey?”

“Well, when he got older, he started doing some bad things and got in trouble with the law. After he got out of prison, he changed his name to make it easier to get a job.”

“Maybe you should change your name, Pop,” said Theo, suppressing a smile.

“Okay, smart guy, who are we gonna ask next? I’ve kind of run out of people.”

“Let me do it, Pop.”

“No, Theo.”

“I’ll be okay. Hugo likes me.” Theo held up the penny. He had a point. Hugo was good to him right off the bat. With no better ideas in the offing, Roy agreed.

As Roy lay in bed that night, the reprieve he’d gotten from the day’s seesawing emotions told him he’d made the right decision. He fell into a deep sleep.

Early the next morning, Roy and Theo ate their crumbly biscuits as they walked through the trampling crowds of the Loop. When they arrived at the yard gate, Roy was feeling full of both ginger and dread.

“Now, Theo,” said Roy, “you know what you’re going to say to Hugo, right? I know you can handle yourself fine. Just be ready to run if you sense something’s not right. Are you afraid?”

“No, Pop.”

Roy gave Theo a quick hug as the guard motioned for him to pass through. He couldn’t help asking the guard, “Can you do me a favor? This is my son. He’s—”

“I don’t have time for sob stories. If you’re going in, go in!”

The trainmaster nodded as Roy stepped forward. “Okay, pay attention. The yardmaster is Hank.” He glanced toward the tracks. “That’s him over there with no shirt on. He’ll tell you what to do. If you get injured, tell Hank, and he’ll tend to it. Don’t bother the railway surgeon unless you need something amputated. Got it?”

“Yeah, I got it.”

Roy walked downhill toward the sprawling embankment on which many tracks had been laid over the years. All except the closest track were loaded, so mostly he saw the roofs of freight cars. Seen through the heat waves rising from them, Lake Michigan resembled a mirage.

Roy introduced himself to Hank, who had just broken up a quarrel between two workers by arbitrarily sucker-punching the closer one. He stared at Roy’s shoes. “You come to work in the yard wearing dandy shoes?”

“They’re all I got.”

“Me and the trainmaster need to have a talk.” He turned his head to spit. “See this track? It was never anchored, so it’s moved all over hell. We’re gonna re-lay it and put in anti-creepers. Ever use a spike puller?”

“No.”

“Well, today you’re gonna learn. These are dog spikes, so they come up pretty easy.” Hank showed Roy how to pry up a spike, using the rail for leverage. Even with him missing two fingers on his left hand, Hank made quick work of it. He handed the weighty puller to Roy.

Roy was a natural and had little trouble with his first spike. “Good,” said Hank. “Now you only got about 300 left to do before lunch.” He laughed and walked away.

As the track bed became littered with pulled spikes, Roy’s mind drifted back to Theo. He was a smart kid, and quick on his feet. Still, Hugo was no angel. Roy thought he could check on Theo at lunch break, if he moved fast and ate along the way. He pictured Theo’s face looking up at him before he walked through the gate, confident like a prizefighter before the first bell. How would his face look the next time he saw him?

Roy started working faster, swinging the puller like it was made of paper. The stakes seemed to pop out of the ties on their own. He took off his shirt and went back at it. Then he felt a sharp kick to his right shin.

“What are trying to do,” said Hank, “make the rest of us look bad?”

“Sorry. I’ll ease up.”

“Yeah, you ease up. Or I’ll throw you out onto the street myself.”

Roy had picked the railroad as his supposed place of employment because he knew a lot of people worked there. If only he had known they were all soreheads—he could have been among friends, mucking out the elephant pen at Ringling Brothers.

With the slower pace and the morning heating up, Roy’s work became drudgery in an oven. Blisters formed on his palms and fingers, and sweat stung his eyes.

Finally, he heard what he’d been waiting for—Hank yelling, “Lunch!” Roy pulled on his shirt, picked up his lunch pail, and headed for the gate.

“Where do you think you’re going?” yelled Hank.

“I gotta check on my boy.”

“Nobody leaves the yard until quittin’ time!”

For Roy, that time had arrived—out the gate he went.

“Don’t come back!” yelled Hank.

Roy followed the path he was sure Theo must have taken on his way home. At first the familiar storefronts were a calming sight, but then Roy fretted over his son’s safety in the daily downtown hurly-burly. Were those drunkards carousing outside that saloon when Theo went by? When he crossed streets, did he watch for wagons? Was he careful around the horses? So many were rearing on the blistering pavement.

His mind now painted with worries, Roy threw open the door to their apartment and called Theo’s name. There was no answer. He checked the WC and looked under the bed. He glanced through a window into the empty alley.

Hedva was on her usual perch in the grocery when Roy burst in. “Where’s Theo!” he shouted. “Is Theo here?”

“Pipe down! There’s enough racket in here as it is.” Hedva opened the door to the stairwell and yelled. “Hugo! Bring the kids down!” She turned back to Roy. “Why aren’t you at work earning rent money?”

“They fired me. Or maybe I quit. Either way, I’ve got to find a new job.”

“Fired you for what?” Roy ignored her grumble as two boys bounced onto the main floor.

Theo looked up with his mouth wide open. “Pop, you’re not at work!”

Roy scooped him up. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, Pop. Hugo brought me here to play with Danny.”

Hedva knocked Roy on the shoulder. “I asked you a question. Fired for what?”

“Company rules,” said Roy, putting Theo down. “I left the yard at lunchtime.”

“That’s a stupid rule.”

“I can go to Springfield. My cousin will help me find something. You can rent the apartment to someone else now.”

“No, no, you’re not going anywhere. It’d take me a week to find another tenant. I know people at the yard. I’ll fix it. Hugo, watch the store until Frank gets back. I have to go somewhere.”

Theo pulled Danny alongside him, and the two posed for Roy with their heads pressed together. “See, Pop, we don’t look the same.”

Roy had heard of doppelgangers, and Danny was one, no question. Same hair. Same nose. Same gap-toothed smile. Now he understood why Hugo had stared so hard at Theo. “You and Danny should stand in front of a mirror and take another look.”

“I don’t need to do that. I already know I don’t have freckles.” The kid had a point.

“Okay, Theo, say goodbye to Danny. We gotta go home.”

Hugo buttonholed Roy while the boys were saying their goodbyes. “You’ve got a real good kid. Danny and him had a good time playin’ together. Like they was always friends.”

“Uh-huh.” Roy headed for the door. It was going to take more than that for a toadying two-face to make up for absconding with his kid.

“Say, Roy?”

“Yeah?”

“I thought you’d wanna know that Theo handled himself real good. He walked right up to me and said, ‘Mister, my pop had to come to work at seven. But he’s in there, all right.’ He wasn’t afraid at all.”

“So, he wasn’t afraid. Why did you want me to know that?”

“I don’t know. I just thought you should hear about it. I mean, you’re bringin’ him up right. That’s all.”

Roy didn’t know what to say. Then he succumbed to the hint of a smile on Hugo’s lips. “Thanks.”

*****

Scott Pedersen is a fiction writer based in Wisconsin. His work has appeared in Fiction International, The I-70 Review, Louisiana Literature, The MacGuffin and many other journals and anthologies. When not writing fiction, he enjoys performing in a traditional Celtic band.