Welcome to chapter eleven of “December, 1919″, a serialized novel written by Oliver Gray. New chapters will be published every week, unless the author has radical arm surgery. Links to all published chapters can be found here.
I flipped the big German’s card over and over in my hand, staring off at a darkening Philadelphia skyline. The clouds hung low, pregnant with snow due any day now, hugging the city in a cold embrace. The weather matched the mood; all the talk in the taverns felt muted and melancholy, like the entire city was collectively mourning those last few drops of booze left to die too young in the bottom of barrels. I’d cloistered myself on the roof of the brewery, tucked back behind the second stacked brick chimney where I thought no one could easily find me.
There, in the shadow of my father’s legacy, I cried. The wind slapped so fierce against my face I thought my tears would freeze, freeze like my spirit had as I watched the flames lick at the wood of his coffin. Threats and shadows finally snapped my last thread of stoicism, and I sat, like a child lost in the sprawling maze of a rush hour downtown, unsure what to do, or how to do it.
Berman and Moore never left my mind, but now, given Ritter’s insistence and insinuation, I saw demons in every shadow of every street corner. Protection? From who, and how? Legally, physically, emotionally? I looked down again at the crisp edges of the card, tracing my fingers over the elongated fours of the accompanying phone number. I hadn’t called. Not yet. I needed time to understand the danger, and know if it was only me who needed protection.
At the thought of my decisions putting my mother or Virginia or sweet William in danger, I abandoned any attempt at stifling my sadness. My sobs meandered upward on the draft between buildings, disappearing forever into the grey as my body purged itself of all the pent up fear and frustration.
“Crying won’t solve anything.” The voice startled me into action, and I jumped up, drew the small knife I’d been cradling like a paranoid vagrant, and turned to face its owner.
George looked terrible. Worse than terrible. His face pallid and sickly with huge, dark circles under each eye that made it like he’d just gone ten rounds with Jess Willard, and then another ten with Jack Dempsy. He’d lost weight, too, but still towered over me, imposing and austere. I moved back, keeping the knife out in front of me like a kitten brandishing its underdeveloped claws at that the maws of an hungry timber wolf.
“No need for that, Jack.” He lowered himself onto a brick outcropping across from me. “I’m not here to hurt you. In fact the opposite. Sit down.”
He motioned casually for me to pocket the knife and lower my guard. I put the knife back into its little leather home, but kept my hand wrapped around the handle, my nerves too cautious to trust anything or anyone.
“Heh, this prohibition might be the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Haven’t had a drink in two weeks. Was pretty rough at first, but I think the light’s finally coming back into my soul.” He held out his large, gnarled hand flat, palm down. It shook violently for a second before he closed it into a fist, brought it to his face, and blew warm air into the hole in the middle. He shivered, too, shoulders involuntarily shrugging despite a very heavy canvas coat.
“I can’t apologize for what I did. It happened and the consequences can’t be undone.” He didn’t make eye contact as he spoke, just stared off at some point behind me. “Virginia won’t talk to me. I understand, of course, but it’s killing me. Her mother doesn’t know anything, and the lie, or at least the lack of truth, eats away at me every day. I haven’t touched a drop since. The whiskey transforms me into a man I can’t trust.”
“George…” I said, trying to be gentle.
He cut me off. “You don’t have to do that, Jack. So like your dad. Try to make everything better even when it isn’t,” he said as he shivered, or shook, again. I couldn’t tell whether he was fighting the DTs or the cold, or some awful combination. “Your dad was like a brother to me. Losing him, then losing the brewery, then losing my entire identity to this temperance movement…I just couldn’t cope.”
I relaxed my grip on the blade and let the tension slide out of my muscles. He seemed sincere, and from his demeanor, it looked like the cold turkey detoxing had left him too weak to be a threat to me. My fear at being caught alone with him suddenly shifted to pity. Strange, I thought, how our emotions can flutter so ephemerally from one extreme to the other.
He sniffed, wiping his nose. “I never expected you and Ginnie to…well…you know. Andrew always joked about it, but she’s my girl, and I never accepted that she’d grown up. I want you to know…” his voice dropped, like he couldn’t figure out what to say, or was very reluctant to say what he needed to. “I’m happy for her. For you. Who better for my girl than my best friend’s son?”
He took his hand out of his coat pocket, and held it forward. The last hand I’d shook was Ritter’s, that massive, powerful paw that made my hand feel like it was made of tissue. George’s hand felt strong, too, but less assertive, less mighty, more connected and forgiving, like the callous digits, scarred and dry, were forgiveness and embarrassment incarnate. I took it, shook it. He coughed and flipped the collar of his coat up against the stubble on his neck.
“Let’s get down,” I said, shaking off a shiver myself. “It’s going to start snowing any minute now, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to climb down a slick, frozen ladder.” George forced a smile, and weakly got to his feet. As he shuffled toward the steel railing that lead back down to the brewery floor, he turned back to me.
“I know it won’t matter, but can you tell Virginia that I miss her?” It was hard to tell in the bluster, but for a moment I thought I saw a tear well in his eye.
“Crying won’t solve anything,” I said, flashing a cheeky smile.
He sniffed and nodded, before disappearing down the ladder, into the dark shadows of the brewery floor below.
To be continued…