Chapter 1: Gypsies
It was just another crummy place to live, a cheap room in a cheap hotel in a cheap part of town, down close to what would have been skid road if this eastern Washington town had been big enough to have a skid road district. The carpets smelled musty, the wall paint stank of stale cigarette smoke; tired light bulbs in filthy overhead globes flickered dingy light and the windows passed gloomy light through their grimy panes.
If the inside of this crummy hotel was bad, the outside was worse. Dirty bricks with chipped edges, crumbling mortar and grimy concrete ledgers framed a lopsided metal sign hung over the front entrance. Faded letters proclaimed Empire Hotel.
Graydon trudged up the staircase to Door 3 and their rooms. The front room overlooked the street. A smaller side window overlooked the trash-littered alley. A refrigerator with condenser coils on top, dirty with dust, stood beside a two-burner gas range. Two overhead cabinets, a chipped counter, and a chrome-legged painted table with four chairs furnished the kitchenette.
A faded brown three-cushion couch slumped under the alley-side window. A yellow overstuffed chair, ripped along one threadbare arm, sat by the doorway into his parents’ bedroom. Another door opened into the bathroom. A bare bulb hung from a twisted, cotton-covered electrical cord. A hard-water stained lavatory bowl flanked a cast iron tub. A rust smear ran down from the dripping tub faucet. The toilet, a big chunk missing from its tank lid, leaned crookedly in the corner.
They’d lived in this hotel apartment since late winter. Alex Johns had finished up his high-iron job on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, built to replace the fallen original suspension bridge nick-named Galloping Gertie. It famously flogged itself to destruction in a wind storm. Alex moved the family to eastern Washington to a job at Rocky Reach dam on the Columbia River near Wenatchee. It was one of many dams that turned the free-flowing Columbia into a riverine terrace of stair-stepped reservoirs. Dam-building offered steady work for his step-father. His first big job had been the Grand Coulee Dam, built in the twilight years of the Great Depression. The federal mania for river damming to generate great quantities of free electricity and canal systems to water the arid western states was abruptly interrupted by Pearl Harbor.
US Army draftee Alex Johns was ordered to a remote Alaskan island chain that no one other than a few crazy fishermen and a handful of neglected native peoples had known existed. Japanese military strategists ordered an invasion force to the Aleutian Islands as a feint, a diversion to draw American military assets away from a greater Japanese goal in the middle Pacific.
Alex Johns operated heavy equipment in a battalion construction unit. He survived a sub-zero blizzard with frostbitten lungs. He emerged from the storm carrying three construction crew survivors on his bulldozer. By war’s end he’d made buck sergeant; he was discharged following VJ Day with a partial disability benefit, a purple heart, and an attitude that before God could throw another nasty surprise his way, he’d live to purely enjoy himself before he went in the hole. Going in the hole is iron-worker slang for falling to death from the high iron.
He met a red-headed divorcee at a Fort Lewis U.S.O. dance. While waiting for his discharge papers to be cut, he dropped a ring on her finger, put a “biscuit in her oven” on the club’s pool table after hours, and agreed to let her five-year-old son tag along while he looked for a job. They packed themselves into a second-hand 1941 Hudson 4-door sedan and hit the road as gypsies, construction camp migrants in a flood of veterans jumping into the American post-war construction boom.
Graydon Williams, tag-along stepson, attended thirteen schools during six years of tramping from job to job, coast-to-coast, before they moved into the Empire Hotel. He’d been bullied and bloodied in fist-fights and humiliated by teachers who resented the presence of construction camp kids, migrant trash, in their classrooms.
He resembled his biological father. He inclined toward studious introspection and escaped into himself whenever his step-father was blustering drunk.
His five year younger half-brother, Alex Jr., was sometimes called cue ball by Alex Sr. who would drunkenly brag about sinking one in the corner pocket late one night in the USO club. Physically, Alex Jr. was a miniature of his father. He was an energetic extrovert. To him, their life was normal; it was all he knew. School and bullies, hostile teachers and frequent uprootings were not factors in his life. His world was mom and dad and big brother. In time he would enjoy a school where he could grow up with friends he’d have for life.
Alex Sr. was late getting home, again. It was the second Friday of the month which meant payday, and if Alex Sr. wasn’t getting drunk with his buddies at the tavern bar, he was getting drunk playing poker in the back room. If he wasn’t getting drunk and rowdy there, he was probably getting drunk at the VFW club while feeding silver dollars into the slot machines.
Dorothy Johns had about given up on following Alex Sr. from job to job. He made high wages as a journeyman iron-worker, a high rigger, and a skilled heavy equipment operator, but he brought home damned little money. Skimping to live, struggling to just get by, and years of his drunken abuse followed by self-pitying promises of “I’ll do better, honey!” had worn her down to hopeless acceptance that little would change. She hoped their migrant life, the poverty, the awful living conditions, the constant harassment by bill collectors, his drunken brawling leading to threats of arrest and jail, that it all might work out, somehow but even that hope was dimming. She was exhausted and she feared for herself and her sons. Dee sat up very late that Friday evening, alone in the dismal hotel apartment with her brooding thoughts, trapped alone with her boys.
Monday began another basalt-canyon, reflector-oven day on the Columbia River flats. A copy of the Wenatchee Daily World newspaper lay discarded in the downstairs hotel lobby. Dee struggled up the stairs with a quart of milk, a fresh loaf of Wonder Bread and a small sack of oranges in her hands, and that snatched-up copy of the Daily World under her arm. She sat down at the wobbly-legged table to began scanning the classified ad pages, thinking it was time to look for an escape route.
For rent with option to buy: 160 acre homestead with log house, $75 per month. Methow Valley. Call or write.
Dee Johns read and re-read that brief listing for a long while. She made a fresh pot of coffee for herself and drank most of it while staring, first at that page, and then for a long, silent time she stared out through the grimy window, thinking, weighing the futility of her present life against the possible chance of grabbing a better life. She looked around their shabby room, their cheap and grimy furniture; she hated the bad smell, the constant noise, the sometimes angry and threatening voices of the other tenants. She stared down at the litter and filth of the alley beside their rooms. She shook her head, clearing her thoughts of it all. She stood, drained her cup, smiled grimly to herself and in the next moment she had up-ended her hide-away cookie tin onto the table. She scrabbled through the coins for a fistful of quarters, dimes, and nickels. Her impatient footsteps thumped down the stairs to the pay phone in the lobby.
Alex Johns came home on time that night because it was Monday and payday was two Fridays back and there was no money left for drinking. He’d hit two buddies up for cash to tide him over but they were stony-broke themselves. So everybody trudged along home, sober. He opened Door 3 to see packed suitcases and a battered green foot locker stacked on the carpet. The boys, pale and wide-eyed, sat together on the sagging couch. Dee, her eyes hard and her mouth set in a grim line, waited at the table, the Daily World folded in her hand.
“The boys and I are moving to Winthrop. You can come if you want.” And that was the entire discussion as she waved the circled ad under Alex Sr’s startled eyes. “We’ll need something to carry us and our luggage and I don’t think that old car will do it. It’s a hundred miles north. Can you find something?”
The next day Alex Sr. skipped work while he scoured the used car lots around town. He went to a finance company and a pawn shop for money. He hocked Dee’s new wristwatch that he’d snagged from her dresser drawer that morning while she was in the bath. He got a $100 loan, a $25 pawn ticket, and $50 when he sold the worn-out Hudson. He bought a 1937 Chevrolet panel truck with two bucket seats, a spindly floor-mounted gear shift lever, and a wooden-floored cargo space where suitcases, the foot locker, boxes of blankets, pillows, Dee’s kitchenware and dishes, and two boys could be stowed.
He said the truck cost $125, but in truth he also spent $5 for two pints of Four Roses whiskey that he stashed in the floor-mounted tool box under the driver’s seat. He’d also dropped $35 in an afternoon poker game at the VFW club. After the poker game and a few whiskey shots with beer chasers, he drove the chalky-blue truck with the bat-wing fenders, fabric panel roof and wire-spoked wheels out to the construction site to draw his pay and punch the job boss in the mouth. His punch loosened two of the man’s front teeth and left him unconscious and bleeding on the office shack floor.
“I never did like that sonofabitch,” Alex Sr. muttered. He loaded everyone up and drove out of town, following the river highway north. He wore a smirking grin as if moving to the Methow had been his idea all along.