The shit hit more than an oscillating fan, more like a misplaced windmill atop Mount Washington when I opened a registered letter from a woman named Cecelia Meeks announcing that I was the father of her six-year-old daughter. Her husband was in jail for twenty plus on a drug charge. She was in, dire, dire, straits. Two lines from the group’s song popped to mind.
He do the walk, do the walk of life
Yeah, he do the walk of life
Me too, buddy.
Do a DNA if you doubt me. They are expensive. Send me $150 and your test result and I’ll have it compared to Siobhan at a LabCorp; “Siobhan,” one of those Irish names that sounds different from how it looks. Christ, this could land me in jail. I was up sewage creek with a toothpick for a paddle. I had about $20 to my name and a crazy feeling. The kid was six, round off the coupling at six years, six days no work due to weather. A devil of a predicament so I played the so-called Satan number 666, 6 times. When I was working at Seekonk Lace, I’d heard a know-all claim the digits were actually 616. I covered that trio too. I met Cecelia at that gig. I ran a pressing machine. She was a spinner. God Almighty, six years of child support. What an investment I was: A Tom Wales Savings Bond. As if I’d sold my soul, the first numbers hit and like a perfect gentleman, I mailed a money order to Cecelia. I worked for Robinson Roofing shingling mostly three-decker tenements in Central Falls. The closest I’d ever be to heaven I guessed. I sometimes splashed around as a housepainter. I’d grown to hate textile mills. I called myself a casual laborer but the truth was I drank too much. Some lecturers used “bum.” Maybe the kid news was a wake-up call that would put me on a sober path. I might find a lawyer who could get my driver’s license reinstated. For the time being, I stuck to my frivolous ways by granting myself a vacation splurge. On the sensible side, I poured my last bottle of rotgut wine down the toilet. The Celtics were in Atlanta. I’d catch a train to Atlanta in Manhattan. I visited Collette Travel to get some info on the Amtrak Crescent that stopped in Atlanta on the way to New Orleans. The only luggage I owned was a backpack and that would do. I made a much-needed trip to a laundromat before packing. I took a Greyhound to the Big Apple in memory of when I rode buses my Navy days. After acting like a sailor in Manhattan, I’d ride one back to my ship in Norfolk, pick up a Village Voice at a newsstand before boarding and imagine a Bohemian life but I wasn’t a poet, writer, folk singer, or artist. Well, I did finish second in a short story contest run by the USO in Naples. My entry was about a sixteen-year-old kid who worked at a Shell Gas Station. He loved Fords and wanted to labor someday at a Detroit factory. A jerk in his mother’s parade of boyfriends pushed him over the line. Disappointing as it was, the only car he succeeded in hotwiring was a Buick. The single Navy mention was that the kid wore his dead father’s pea coat. The winning entry was about boot goddam camp and it didn’t sound fiction to me, about how wonderful this douchebag’s company had been, won all kinds of achievement flags. Fiction would have been me using my company 454, claiming multiple flags when we won zilch. Maybe I could modify my tale to fit six-year-old girl ears. Many drunken barroom nights I’d recited Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, “When in Disgrace with Fortune and Men’s Eyes.” Would she like that? Am I losing my mind? Did she have a nickname? Vonny would be a good one. A missing photo in Cecilia’s letter should have made me suspicious, such a trusting soul or sap.
I walked the half-mile or so from the Port Authority to Penn Station. Along the way, I saw a woman I thought might be Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter Mariel who’d been in Woody Allen’s Manhattan film. At a stoplight, a cabdriver acted up. He was involved in a fiery argument with a FedEx van jockey. They flipped the bird so many times I suspected they might be members of some profane branch of the Audubon Society. Next block, I encountered a most unusual panhandler sitting on a blanket, a red and white cane across his lap, a well-worn fedora tilted left on his head; a Veteran’s Day fake poppy in its band. I dropped a fiver in his bucket, compliments of the Beelzebub I mouthed. The Temptations serenaded from a boom box. His company was half dozen kittens in a cardboard box, proxy vision I witlessly imagined. The tiniest one, a smudged nosed black and white, had eyes the blue of odes and arias that even the likes of Monet would have a tough time capturing, on his or her best palette day. If I lost the Vonny sweepstakes, would Cecelia introduce her to me or was this just a money deal? Maybe the kid wouldn’t like me. If she did, visitation weekends might follow. How in the hell would I know how to act? Maybe I’d find book at the library that would help. First, I’d have to move to a better neighborhood, rent a decent apartment, buy new furniture, and abstain from booze when she was around. Maybe drift back to AA. I’d never teach the kid how to play the numbers. Maybe she’s a Celtics fan, Robert Parish her favorite too. We could take buses to Brown and Providence College women’s games. I’d be hoping she’d dream of being a player and not a cheerleader. I was a tick under 6-feet; Cecelia was no shrimp. If I won the wager, I might help Cecilia despite the “mistake.”
In the waiting room, I saw a man reading the Koran and a woman lost in a Bible full of bookmarks made of paper strips bent like fingers worn thin beckoning legions of heathens and infidels. A teen dozed with a copy of Tristram Shandy. I’d read it my year of junior college. I’d counted how many times he’d used the term “Hobby-Horse.” I think it might have been 43, no sixes involved.
I caught the 2:00 P.M. Amtrak Crescent, an overnight to Atlanta. Walking to a roomette, I was aware of the conductor’s rhythmic clickety-clicks and I wondered if a punch band ever performed at railway employee outings. My compartment was tidy, very compact. It had a small bathroom that included a shower. There was a couch, a single seat, and a very slim closet. Water, coffee, and juices were available at the end of the car. Watching the landscape pass by reminded me of a 24-hour train ride in 1963 from Navy boot camp in Chicago to Providence, Rhode Island and home. I was eighteen. No antenna dish farms then—no male pattern baldness either (although Navy barbers did their best). I’d longed for tailored dress blues instead of my baggy initial issue set. I tried to avoid scuffing my spit-shined shoes. After two weeks of leave, I reported to the USS Mullinnix docked at Destroyer / Submarine Piers in Norfolk where I swabbed, chipped, and painted for seven months before Supply School in Newport, Rhode Island. I had a slick gabardine uniform for that train ride. I never resorted to patent leather dress shoes.
I enjoyed reading signs out of the Crescent’s window: the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, Bower Field, and Amir’s Sea and Soul Food in Wilmington, Delaware were some of many before stopping at that depot. Glancing at the tracks in the train yard, I was amazed at how the simple design of tracks and ties endured over the decades. Woody landscapes, orchards, occasional wisteria, a razor wired prison, housing project, junkyards, and more railroad yards with rusty cars flashed before my eyes—then finally Baltimore and its row house scenery. Some residences well maintained; others dilapidated as in any large city. Then Washington, D.C.: The Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Potomac River, and the Smithsonian were all very visible.
I ate dinner in the dining car, which prompted thoughts of old films, North by Northwest for one. I found myself mind talking to the kid, asking about her favorite movies—Crazy. The food wasn’t bad. My vegetable lasagna was tasty but three of the menu entrees weren’t available. I sat with an Atlanta college professor who specialized in dialects, and her husband, an expert in Georgia geography. He seemed very proud of Georgia’s square mile dominance over Pennsylvania. Being a Rhode Islander I didn’t feel I had a say.
Manassas, VA was the next stop after many miles of shipshape farms, large and small, silos and barns with “Mail Pouch Tobacco” ads painted on them, grazing cattle and an occasional llama. In town, I noticed families waiting in line outside Foster’s Grille. The professor had mentioned their fabulous charburgers as well as all the Civil War sites. Sure sounded interesting but a step at a time; The Crescent could be my last trip depending on LabCorp.
The porter arrived a little after nine and set up my bunk. I could hear a blind man I noticed earlier in the dining car tapping his way by the door, no recollection of two in a day of my life until now. The rocking of the train felt a bit like shipboard life, however, the “Iron Horse” with its jerks and jolts, would never provide the deep rest of a smooth sea. While trying to nod off, the intermittent train whistle got me thinking about people in houses and hotels within hearing distance. Were they thinking of that old Hank Williams song that was playing in my mind? “(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle”
All alone I bear the shame
I’m a number not a name
I heard that lonesome whistle blow
All I do is sit and cry
When the ev’nin’ train goes by
I heard that lonesome whistle blow
I could sure identify with “lonesome.” What kind of music would a six-year-old favor?
“Sleep is finished” was the wakeup call through the cracked open door. I dressed and made my way to the dining car. An older couple from Park Slope, Brooklyn (obsessed with the sodium content of food) sat with me. She was retired from 38 years of nursing. He carried vinegar with him in case of a blood pressure spike and told of an aunt who was never without peach leaves to make tea to treat her diabetes. He was wearing a jean jacket, logo from some casino in Atlantic City. “He got it for gambling so damned much,” his wife said. They argued about which one was the more profligate gambler. As I left, she made a strange recommendation that I visit Lourdes. Cecilia went to Sacred Heart Academy. Did she raise Vonny Catholic? Would the kid drag me to Mass? What the hell; might do me some good. I could get her a kitten for a birthday or Christmas, would check with Cecelia about allergies of course.
There was a delicate rain falling when I got off the train in Atlanta, a fraction above drizzle. The train station was small and ordinary for such a large city. I hailed a cab, driven by a chatty man from Eretria. He asked about my rail ride and said it took far too much time. Then he went on to talk about his 24-hour non-stop drive to Denver for his cousin’s wedding: hmm.
The fare to the Courtyard was $10. There was a vacancy but the room wasn’t ready, so I parked myself in a comfortable chair near the dining room. I did the Crossword Puzzle in The Atlanta Constitution, and the Jumble, none of the words were relevant to my possible fatherhood. I zipped through the comics and had a vision of laughing with – for the first time – my daughter.
Half hour later I checked in. I took a nap and then went out to get the lay of the land. The weather had cleared. Walking up Andrew Young International Blvd, I noticed mosaic-like images of the seven continents in the intersection surfaces. I imagined kids finding a hopscotch game or sketching the images at a classroom desk. Yes sir, among them that up-in-the-air child. I passed a hotel sign welcoming a visually impaired group. I hoped to see some noble guide dogs.
I peeked into Dailey’s Martini & Cigar Lounge. I could see blue neon that didn’t match what an alley feline tryst behind an on or off Broadway theatre could create. The door was ajar. I could catch the trio’s tune, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” I hadn’t tasted gin in ages and if I smoked, it was a pipe. I did enjoy jazz though, attended a Dexter Gordon concert once. It finally struck me that Cecelia took me to her apartment that was near the defunct Leroy Theater, once a thriving burlesque, for our tryst. What’s color were Vonny’s eyes?
Four men cane tapped their way toward me. That made six on the day. One of them asked me for directions to Hooters. His “Hobby Horse” I guessed and congratulated myself for connecting Shandy. I asked a cop walking by; got directions to State Farm Arena also, 2 miles. I’d hike it. I pulled my hand off the Lounge door. I thought of the servers at Hooters joking about Braille “accidents.” I thought of color blue. I thought of Vonny blue.
About the Author
Thomas M. McDade is a resident of Fredericksburg, VA, previously CT & RI.
He is a graduate of Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT.
McDade is twice a U.S. Navy Veteran serving ashore at the Fleet Anti-Air Warfare Training Center, Virginia Beach, VA and at sea aboard the USS Mullinnix (DD-944) and USS Miller (DE / FF 1091).