Swans Commentary » swans.com March 28, 2011  



The Culvert


by Peter Byrne


A Short Story



(Swans - March 28, 2011)   Paul locked the door of his cottage just in case. He hid the key in the knothole of the apple tree and walked down the path to Zack's. Zack was just closing his door and locking it too. He pocketed the key with panache. The boys were fourteen and being trusted by their parents to spend Monday to Friday in the family summerhouses on their own. That's why on Thursday evening they carried themselves with a grown-up swagger as they tramped down the path to the gravel road.

The road went up a little hill and then dropped to where it ran between the river and a spring-fed swamp. A large round pipe, three feet across, passed beneath the road connecting swamp and river. That was the culvert.

Fishermen sometimes tried their luck from the verges on either side of the road. But there were no trees or cover and scarcely space to park. All the same drivers occasionally pulled up between the road's edge and the water. So the boys weren't surprised to see two cars stopped by the river's edge. But they looked twice at the two men sitting and fishing from the open car doors.

"Gee, niggers," said Zack under his breath, turning his eyes back to the road in front of him and keeping them there. He was slight, wore glasses, and had slicked his hair back in view of the evening out.

Paul, sturdy, taller, stopped to stare till Zack hurried him on.

"You don't see many here," said Paul.

At his home on the Northside of Chicago they said "colored" or "negroes."

"You've never seen one here until now. That's why my father bought our cottage. They're wrecking the Southside."

Paul couldn't fathom that, though he'd heard it before. Where he lived people were white and of one descent or another. He knew the Polish neighborhood you saw going toward downtown Chicago. There were funny names on signs but no special trouble. Once his father took him to the Maxwell Street market. Greeks sold roast sweet corn by the ear and made coffee in tiny tin pots. Jews shouted you out of the way of their carts or stood eyeing you from the doorway of their stores. Nobody stepped out of line.

"What do they do wrong?" he asked.

The road left the banks of the river and swamp, passed a low-built riverside tavern on the left, and ran on between rows of trees with houses set back on each side.

"They spoil a neighborhood," said Zack.

Paul remembered hearing his mother say, "Those people live like animals." Her friend had traveled through the Black Belt on the El and seen into windows. She said couples just lie in bed in the afternoon. His mother was talking about sex, he knew, even if she hadn't said so.

"Don't you play with any of their kids?" he asked Zack.

Zack mugged a scared look,

"Are you nuts," "You can't have anything to do with them. They carry knives and razors."

"We got Poles," said Paul. "Sometimes on the Milwaukee Avenue streetcar everybody's speaking Polish. They paint their houses pink and blue. Their names end with -ski, but they play baseball with us."

Zack shut up. No one from the Northside could understand. So they had people speaking a foreign language, but who didn't have some polacks around? What they didn't have was all kinds of junk coming over the back fence. Zack could hear his father griping as he pushed the lawn mower. He found a bike frame, a pissed-in football helmet, a bird's nest all torn apart and a pile of dog turds. To be contrary, his mother argued that a cat might have brought the nest in and you never saw a nigger with a dog.

When his father stopped shouting and spoke low to himself, Zack always knew that he found one of their rubber johnnies. He had some way of disposing of these that Zack had never found out. But he'd hear his father telling his mother afterward, "My God, the length!" Then his mother who had kept quiet while his father shouted would begin. Why didn't his father call the police? Why didn't he block the holes in the fence and put barbed wire on top as he'd been talking about doing for years? Why didn't he put the house up for sale as he threatened to do every time he mowed the lawn? Not talking, his father would go back and rake the grass.

"Sure, you can play baseball with polacks. But you can't with niggers. There's a difference."

"What's that?" asked Paul.

"The difference is you can't play baseball with them."

Zack knew he couldn't explain how it was at home when their next-door neighbor of a lifetime sold up to niggers without a word of warning. Old man Gorman did that. He had always been going on about the Ol' Country, honking through his pipe smoke about sticking together for the sake of common decency. Up the Pope and Reilly's beer garden! But then Zack's father heard he had an eye on a place in Oak Park, and the Gormans were gone overnight. His father, dreamy-eyed, said that they'd made a packet.

"What about that Dorothy Day that came to speak at school assembly? She said they were no different from us," said Paul.

Roger gave a snorty laugh,

"That old bag from the Catholic what's-it doesn't have a jabbering church in her corner grocery store. You know that some of them just stand there in the street all day doing nothing? My mother's afraid to go outside. My father's lived in our house since he was born."

They were on the bridge over the river now. Zack couldn't describe how it suddenly felt to see black-faced kids in the vacant lot where he'd built bonfires with the Daley twins.

"There used to be rules. We all had our own neighborhoods. Everyone kept to themselves and it was fine. Trouble only started when somebody didn't stay where he belonged."

"What about Jim Kenny, he lives out your way? A gang of Italians caught him and pants-ed him."

"That's kids' stuff. He should have stayed home. When niggers move in nothing's the same. They live dozens in one house. They start businesses of their own. Our old barber shop's a hair-straightening parlor."

As usual the boys were first in the theater. They would spend four hours there. The first feature was a Laurel and Hardy. They laughed and laughed and by the funniest part at the end were tired of laughing and watched in silence thinking of the second feature. It was about kids living in the slums. One of two brothers went bad and became a rich gangster. That made their mother, a widow, suffer. The other brother was a policeman who took the mother to church and helped kids build soapbox-derby racers. The gangster got shot near the end and the policeman had nothing more to worry about afterward. He teamed up with the neighborhood girl who had come to see through the bad brother little by little.

Paul and Zack were tired and kept quiet as they walked home. Then Paul started to talk about the slum in the movie. He said it must have been like the Southside.

"Southside that!" Zack said, stopping short on the gravel road. "We've got houses, not those tenements they're always talking about. There are parks. Kids don't push orange-crate wagons around the streets."

Paul tried to agree,

"And in the movie there were no negroes -- niggers."

Zack shook his head in disbelief at Paul's ignorance. He laughed at the top of his voice and jumped up and down, being silly.

"Niggers in the movies! What are you talking about? My father wouldn't let me go to the theater anymore."

When they reached the road between the swamp and the river, the tavern was dark. It had no regular hours. If there were no customers, it closed. The boys made their usual joke about the outdoor toilet at the end of the ramshackle plank pier. The privy emptied right into the river. Paul stopped Zack with his arm.

"There's somebody out there. The door just closed."

Reaching the culvert, they were amazed to see the two cars still parked. They looked at each other in wonder and made sure not to alter their step. The fishermen had set a battery lantern on the ground off to the side. They sat in the dark on the car seats away from the mosquitoes and held their poles over the water.

"Jeese," said Zack as they climbed the hill, "they're staying over!"

Both boys were wide-awake now. Paul went on to his cottage and brought back some Ritz cheese crackers. Zack was heating a can of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup.

"They're going to stay overnight." Zack had a pinched look on his face. The soup he poured into bowls overflowed. He brushed the spilt part on to the floor using a table knife smeared with peanut butter.

"But they've got no beds," said Paul. "They could have eaten fish fries from the tavern for supper but what about breakfast?"

Zack gave a nervous whinny,

"They'd never go to the tavern, stupid, except to take a dump. That was one of them in the john on the pier. Who else would be sneaking around? You can swim in nigger shit tomorrow."

Paul looked at his soup. How was nigger shit different? Was it another color? He wasn't going to ask Zack who would know all about it from the Southside and call him stupid again.

"They eat catfish and carp, dirty stuff," said Zack

"The tavern has fried perch," said Paul.

"The tavern wouldn't let them in, even to buy cigarettes," said Zack.

"The worst town drunks are in there all day long," said Paul.

"These shines would never go into the tavern. They're not that dumb. They creep around and pretend not to be there, invisible," said Zack.

"You mean they can't go into any of the town stores?" asked Paul.

"They wouldn't take the chance."


"Of being seen."

"But we see them. Anybody who looks sees them," said Paul.

"Jeese! They can't be doing things like the people who live here. They can't be just living like us. Why do you think that jig crept out to the shithouse in the dark?"

"You mean that tomorrow morning they can't go into the paper store and buy The Chicago Tribune?

"Never, they'd never risk it."

"But say they run out of gas for their cars?"

"They'd go out on the highway and pull into a filling station like they were on a long trip and just passing through."

"Funny," said Paul.

"I told you, they're crazy."

"But what will they eat?"

"They bring stuff with them. That's not the problem. But, tomorrow evening, what will my father do?"

"About what?"

"The niggers. The men around here will have to do something."

Paul thought of Zack's gray-haired father doing something. The most he ever did was dig in the garden and then he had to sit in the shade recuperating for the rest of the day.

"They'll go away."

"That's how it started on the Southside. Now try to get rid of them."

In the morning Paul put on his swim trunks and stopped for Zack. They caught a few night crawlers from a patch where Zack's father had spread coffee grounds. They carried the pair of oars down to the riverbank where an old rowboat was tied up. Their fishing gear lay tangled in the bottom where they'd left it days before.

For once Zack needed no encouragement to row. He headed straight for the culvert and stopped thirty feet from the shore. He pointed to the anchor, a jagged piece of concrete on a chain, and Paul heaved it over the side. The noise was an explosion in the placid morning. The boys didn't flinch at the racket, which came as no surprise to them. They put worms on their hooks and moved briskly into the pose of fishing. It wasn't something they usually enjoyed, and in fact they found the hunt for worms the best part of fishing.

Paul said too loudly, "The best fishing's in the current coming through the culvert." His words weren't meant for Zack.

The boys acted as if they were alone on the river and only looked at the parked cars from the corner of their eye. The two men hadn't changed their positions. They sat sideways in the front seats of their cars and fished from the open doors. They held jointed metal rods and fixed their eyes to where their lines entered the river. One fisherman wore a rosy brown fedora and the other a peaked leather cap with a high crown.

"You see," whispered Zack, "they always wear hats."

Paul looked at their bare feet, which were long, bony, and dark as if powdered with gray dust.

"Haven't they shoes and socks?" he asked.

Zack shushed him and whispered,

"Maybe not. You never know with them. I told you they're crazy."

"Let's put on fresh worms," said Paul, loud enough to be heard on the road.

Zack tried to speak without moving his lips,

"There's a fat woman with a cooking pan over on the swamp side. They always bring their women."

Paul gawked and Zack had to hiss at him not to stare.

"Don't move your head but there's a skinny woman on the back seat of the green car."

"They're going to sit there all day," said Paul beneath his breath.

Zack spoke out, "Last week the carp were coming through the culvert, big ones you could hit with a two-by-four and knock out."

The black fishermen never moved their eyes from their lines. The fat woman got into the back seat of the green car with the skinny woman.

Zack wanted to yell, "Look there's a big carp!" But there was only muddy water coming through the culvert from the swamp. He said, "Okay, anchors away, let's go, you row."

In the afternoon they threw a basketball up at the hoop fixed to an oak tree. Paul got mean out of boredom and made Zack pay for being eight inches shorter. Finally Zack's glasses got knocked off and they scuffled in the grass. Each went to his own cottage, calling the other names.

At six o'clock Paul ran a wet comb through his hair and walked to Zack's place. Zack put a dirty plate in the sink and rinsed a milky glass. He cleared most of the crumbs off the table with a rapid sweep of his forearm.

"Here's what we'll do," said Paul as they hurried along the path. "We'll check out what they're up to now at the culvert. We walk past, you know, just normal."

Zack pursed his lips. That was his usual way of disagreeing. But Paul saw he would go along and kept talking.

"Then we head for the turn-off before the bridge. We plant ourselves in front of that lit-up gasoline billboard. When my father takes the turn he'll see us and stop."

"My dad and mom will be there first," said Zack. "Just wait till I tell them! They drive sixty miles to get away from the Southside and you know who. There's no telling what my dad will do."

"Hey, do you remember when my father dug that well," said Paul. "He kept coming down hard on that iron spike with his sledgehammer. He counted out loud to over sixty."

They came out of the path and into the road scuffing their shoes on the gravel. They were both excited but motioned one to the other to take it easy. They wanted to just saunter by. But from the crest of the hill they could see down the road to the culvert. Paul stopped a moment and whistled. Zack bent forward and scurried ahead. There was nothing there. The parked cars had gone.

Zack kicked his foot around the empty space where the cars had been. He thought he found tire marks. But Paul said they were from the county road workers' truck. They looked for paper bags or anything left behind, but there was nothing at all.

Paul pointed to the two stakes that the fishing lines they put out had been tied to. Zack said the stakes had been there a long time and had to do with work on the road. Paul thought not. They passed over the culvert without giving it a glance. They argued about the stakes as they walked. Each took a different side of the road and threw an occasional stone across.

The light hadn't gone on yet over the gasoline billboard. The boys paid it no attention. They walked over the bridge toward Main Street as if they had agreed on that. Neither was eager to see his parents now. There was no adventure in unloading the car and sitting down to family supper.

Their quarrel lapsed into the practical matter of counting how much money they had left.

"We can just make two tickets," said Zack who was fast with figures. "No popcorn or nothin'."

"Friday's the new program," said Paul, with a wince. "It's that one with Bette Davis."

Zack farted with his mouth.

But they walked faster toward the theater. They wanted to be first in. They'd count the rows and the seats and sit in the absolute center.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 28, 2011