A Kelly Green Sweater
Now in his rarly thirties. MITCHELL J. STRUCINSKI was born on Chicago’s south side, where he went through grade school and then worked red at several odd jobs in packing houses and stock rooms. During World War II he served with the Merchant Marine. It was at this time that his literary interests were aroused; and with thr tutoring of a fellow officer, he spent three years catching up on the education he had missed. He has bern writing seriously for the past six years. His first published story appeared in the Atlantic last November.
by MITCHELL J. STRUCINSKI
DURING the winter it was miserable work, but one of the first things we did on taking over was to put the stove into condition, so that at least we did not freeze. Burton, the yard owner, would sputter about the fire hazard and disclaim all responsibility, but we didn’t let his fretting trouble us. There weren’t any boats near enough to be harmed, and if we lost the Beyuine we wouldn’t be losing a heck of a lot. Ted and I had convinced Burton that the fifteen hundred we offered would be his best price. The way Burton snapped it up suggested he agreed with us.
She was in terrible shape. There wasn’t much we could do with the hull that winter, except locate the more obvious rotten spots. But we could and did strip the layers of paint some oaf had slapped on the rich mahogany paneling of her cabins. We cleaned her, dropped in a new engine, and waited for milder weather to give us a crack at the outside.
Getting a part of that ketch was a break for me.
I wouldn’t have been able to afford any part of a sixty-five-foot boat if Ted hadn’t been able to pay two thirds of the expenses we were sharing. During the war I’d saved enough at sea to make me feel reasonably well off for a punk not yet twenty-five, but I wasn’t a rich man by any definition.
It gave me a big bang to ask the toolroom guys at Danly’s, where I worked, if they’d like to work on my boat some weekend. Expecting, as they did, a Star or a Comet, they were stunned when I led them up the ladder and into the cockpit. The guilt they felt made them work just a little harder grinding the Gray’s valves, or ironing out kinks in the windlass, and I let them do it as a measure of retribution for their initial doubts.
When the weather got better we had five or six guys and their wives or girl friends scraping paint, sanding woodwork, or calking. About two thirty Ted would drive up to North Avenue, pick up some smoked fish, a case of beer, some bread and cheese, and we’d knock off for lunch. We had some pretty good times there in the yard before we put her in the water. This was due to a great extent to our helpers, who were more than a little patient and entertaining. They knew summer wasn’t far off, and were counting on at least one weekend on the Beyuine. Under those conditions, it’s surprising how much work you can get out of people. The nice thing about it was that if they stopped showing up after the third or fourth time they forfeited any claims on us. Perhaps we weren’t being too nice, but neither were the people who came out, with the exception of old man Nelson, and he didn’t count. They wanted a lot of fun, with a minimum of work, and we wanted the reverse.
With ihe old man, however, it was different. The day the Beguine was to be launched, we discovered a bad pipe in the head, enough to cause a bilge problem. Ted and I were working on it when this old character offered to help. He was a little man, five four, maybe an inch or so over, who looked as if he’d just about had it. Dried up, the way small-boned people become when they start pushing seventy.
Ted was ready to give Burton the job. We were tired of fooling with her and wanted to get on the lake. But after the old man said he was a plumber, had been one all his life, before lead poisoning or something of that sort got the best of him, Ted decided to let him go ahead. He had some tools in the back seat of a Model A parked outside the yard, and the way he hurried made you want to pat the old guy on the head and tell him to take it easy. He finished quickly, and we offered to pay him, but he wouldn’t take any money.
Around one thirty Burton put her in the water. She floated true and trim. A sweet boat, a sailor’s boat. The old man stood by as we fueled and prepared to cast off. His eyes were bright, and you could see the admiration shining there like a diamond in the dust. I felt sorry for him. He’d worked his butt off, and all we’d given him was a can of beer and some fish. Half joking, but wanting him to know how I felt, I asked him if he wanted a ride.
“Oh,” he said, the way a kid might. Just “Oh.” Xo more.
“You ready?” Ted was fiddling restlessly with the starter button. “It’s getting late.”
“How about it?” I don’t know why, but I felt I ought to get some definite answer from the old man.
He jumped aboard. Burton got off Ids fanny long enough to cast our lines free.
Ted gave me one of those cold looks. “You sure you want to come?” he said to the old man. “ We’re taking her up to Evanston.”’That was news. Last time I’d heard anything we were supposed to head for the Monroe Street mooring.
“If you don’t mind.” Nelson looked ready to jump back ashore, but we’d already drifted eight or ten feet from the dock.
“Glad to have you aboard,” Ted answered, and he hit the starter.
She fired up nice and sweet. We came around and headed downriver, past all that terrific scenery they’ve got up there near Division: the factories, the slum buildings, and Monkey Ward’s. The old man just stood in the cockpit, watching the shoreline slip by, getting a big boot from the way traffic stopped at the drawbridges when they opened to let us slip between their towering leaves. After a bit, when we got down to where the two branches meet, below Grand Avenue, he wandered up forward and I had a chance to talk to Ted.
“What’s this Evanston thing? I thought we were headed for the mooring.”
“You don’t mind if we take a couple of girls out for a run, do you? First trip. We ought to celebrate a little.”
Ted usually plans these things carefully, and all we had on board was a few scraps of our lunch and a little beer. I shrugged. What the hell, if he didn’t want the old man aboard he could have said so, instead of dreaming up a sudden party.
“What about stores?”
Any time we were in hailing distance of the boat we’d fall into that lingo, something we never used away from the boatyard. It made us feel a little like old times, when we were shipping out on those crummy Liberties during the war. That’s really all Ted and I had in common; those few trips, and that torpedoing. The Beguine wais an afterthought, a memento to a past I think we knew even then was dead.
“ We can pick up some stuff downtown.”
He tied up at the Wabash bridge and we left the old man to watch her while we hustled down to the Stop & Shop. It was midafternoon of a warm, late-April day, and when we came back we found the usual crowd leaning on the concrete railing watching our boat. I’d seen it a hundred times, been a part of a crowd like that, and I felt sorry for them when we pulled out. I know that feeling of being left behind.
WE CLEARED the locks and hoisted sail. She came alive in the six-knot breeze blowing over her port quarter. I took the wheel, and Ted went belowto clean up.
She was a sweet ship. Sixty-five feet at the waterline, anolher ten added on deck by a long counter, and she had a bowsprit that jutted practically to the horizon, it seemed like. I’ve been on a lot of ships, before and since, some of them among the biggest afloat, but there’s nothing to equal the feeling of immensity and at-seaness you get in the cockpit of a good-sized ketch running before the wind. We had a racing suit, but wore only using three sails. From the way she dug her nose in, not sounding, just digging in the way a good miler does with every stride, I wondered why, in her younger days, she hadn’t won more than that one Mackinac thrash. I wished she were all mine, so I wouldn’t have to share her; not with Ted, not with anyone.
I let the old man take her for a while. He handled her like he would that Model A of his. Once I grabbed the wheel to keep him from jibing her. After a few minutes he got the feel, and didn’t do too badly. For an old codger he knew enough to listen when he was supposed to. He didn’t look much like a sailor, standing there in those filthy overalls, a thin ruff of gray hair plastered across his bony skull, sweat marks on his face and dirt on his hands where he’d been grubbing in her bowels.
When Ted came up, spruce, clean, and crewcut, I took the old man below while I cleaned up. I had to hurry, because we were nearing Evanston, and before 1 was ready Ted called me to help tie up. He left as soon as he could, to do some telephoning, I guessed. Most people you invite on a boat like the Beguine, even if they do live in Evanston or Winnetka, will be wailing on the dock when you come in. It didn’t matter, but I was still a little sore. I know I shouldn’t have been, yet I often found myself getting angry with Ted for things I would have overlooked before we got the boat,
I didn’t know how long we’d have to wait, so I opened some beer, made some sandwiches, and the old man and I ate in the cockpit. Nelson was still excited.
“What does a boat like this cost ?” he asked.
“You couldn’t touch one new for under twent3five.”
His face lit up. “Well, now. That doesn’t sound so bad. Twenty-five hundred, eh?”
The light went out. “Oh.”
“Planning on getting one?”
“I ... I couldn’t afford anything this big.”
“You could always fix it yourself, the way we did.”
I didn’t want him to think we had such a hotshot boat. She looked good, all right, but she was old and tired, and her biggest charm for me was that she was partly mine. Alongside one of the boats they turn out in Maine she would have looked sick.
He nodded. “How big a boat do you think I could got for . . .”He paused momentarily. You could see him doing the math work, balancing living expenses against the bank account, pruning, trimming, cutting, compromising. “. . . for twenty-seven hundred ?”
“ Does it have to be sail?”
“No. Just something a man could live on.”
“There’s some pretty fair bin’s in twenty-foot cruisers, if you scout around.”
“Yes. I think I’d like something like that.”
Usually I’m not very nosy. I’m not interested enough in people to pry into their business. If they want to tell me something, I’ll listen, but I don’t generally ask. But this guy got under my skin.
It’s a long, sad story notable only in that it’s so damned undifferent from ;my story any old man in anyr big town can tell, except that where other men want a home or a trip around the world, Nelson wanted a boat. I thought of the little guy" making a living installing water closets and pipes and sewer lines, and all the other stuff it takes to get rid of other people’s filth, and, in all those dank basements, on those cold and noisy construction jobs, dreaming all the time about this boat he would, maybe, own before he died.
I’ve never met any body who hated the city as Nelson did. Hate isn’t the word. There isn’t one to describe it.
“Filth, that’s what it is,” he said, his gra3" eyes flaring. “Cold and filthy and inhuman, a sewer I’ll get aw ay from if it kills me.”
What makes people feel that way can be almost anything, but mostly it’s loneliness. I’ve never seen a guy who was alone for very long turn into a humanitarian. Why it is, I don’t know. Something in them sours. Maybe they’re bitter because they’re lonely, and maybe they’re lonely because they started out bitter, who knows? It’s like the chicken and the egg. The terrible thing is that they keep hoping. Every once in a while they drop their guard, the scared and lonely ones, and sure as hell somebody sneaks in a punch that only makes them more unhappy and distrustful.
Ted finally showed up, with five girls and a couple of guys. They all looked alike, college stuff. Tall, quiet, and snotty as hell. I got ready for an evening of being ignored. I’ve never been able to hit it off with a bunch like that. I’m a Polak, and for a Polak a good time means lots of noise. Their idea of noise wouldn’t pass for a Sunday afternoon ping-pong game in Brighton Park. If I started off all right with one of those dames, inside of an hour I could be sure she’d be looking and acting as if I were something that had wandered out of the stockyards. The thing
is, I do belong down in the yards, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too unhappy. But it does get on a guy’s nerves after a while.
They looked at Nelson as if we’d just pulled him out of the water, then ignored him. The sun had turned a deep orange just above the trees, and a cool wind was pushing the Beguine away from her dock. I saw the old man shiver, and noticed he wasn’t wearing anything under his overalls. I went below, found an old Kelly High sweater in a locker where I’d tossed it during the winter, and gave it to the old man. lie looked at the big white K on the green material, turned
it. inside out, and pulled it over his head. It was way the hell too big, but il would keep him warm.
“Thanks for helping,” I said, letting him know this was the end of the line for him.
“It wasn’t anything. I like working around boats. I enjoyed myself.” YVc shook hands, and he was halfway up the pier before I snapped.
“Hey, Nelson,” I called, and hurried up to him.
“You got carfare?”
“Well . . . I’m all right. Good night.”
I grabbed his arm and shoved a fin into his pocket. His hand dove after it, and he looked angry. “This is too much,” he protested.
“Forget it. Let me know how you make out with the boat.” He started to beef some more, but I walked away. What the hell was I to do, let him walk all the way back to Division Street?
HAT virgin trip was a real blowout. We took the Beguine out into ihe middle of the lake and let her fend for herself. In the morning we pulled into Saugatuck, and didn’t get back to the west shore until practically daylight Monday. Ted said he’d take her down to Monroe Street alone, which was great with me, because I had to hustle to work. If Danly’s wasn’t near the elevated out there in Cicero I never would have made it that day. I was in bad shape and, as it was, nearly an hour late.
We had a good time on the Beguine that summer. Just about the kind of time you’d expect from a couple of guys like fed and me. ‘That’s a summer I’m not likely to forget very soon, both for the pleasure I had and for what happened later.
Nelson showed up in the bar at Monroe Street one Friday afternoon. That was before they redid the place, when they had that tiny warren of a bar that always reminded me of the saloon on a Mexican tanker Ted and I sailed on the Aruba to Rio run. Nelson had the sweater with him.
“I suppose it’s all right for me to come here,” he said, after we shook hands and I introduced him to this gill from my neighborhood. “I’m an owner now.”
“Great. What did you find?”
“Twenty-six feet. Inboard, too.”
I nodded. “In the water yet?”
“Well . . . no, not yet. She needs a little work.”
That could mean anything from a replanking to a paint job, so I let it slide. I wasn’t too eager to press the conversation. I mean, I was glad to see him, and it was nice of him to bring the sweater, although I never wore it again, but I had this broad who’d spent four years at the state university, a dentist’s daughter from my part of town, and she was about as much at home in Ted’s bunch as I was, so we were hitting it off pretty good even that early in the weekend.
“When you taking me out?”
“Soon as she’s in. I’d like you to see her.” He took a deep breath. “I’m doing it, Stan. I’m getting away.” He said it as if he thought it mattered to me, and I smiled politely.
How can 1 tell you about the pleasure in his face when he said that? I can’t, so I won’t try, except to sav a guy in a death cell must have that look when the warden shows up with a commutation instead of the green-room key five minutes before it ‘s time to go.
To be honest, I couldn’t, figure out what he was talking about for a minute. I kept quiet and looked as interested as I could, what with the gal pressing her knee against my leg.
“It’s all set. I’ve got a job lined up in Florida, selling plumbing. It’s not much, bread and butter, and maybe a beer, but I can live on the boat. Figure I’ll take the boat around the long way.”
That meant going up the Lakes, down the canal and the intracoastal to Florida. A nice trip.
“I’ll sec you before you leave, won’t I?”
“You damn betclia,” he grinned. “We’ll throw a party.”
TED and I wound up the summer in good shape. I forgot Nelson, he wasn’t the kind of person you remember, and would have forgotten about his boat if we hadn’t decided to pul the Beguine into storage early.
We took her upriver one Saturday kite in September. Indian summer was with us, and the blackbrown river water, loaded with the excretions of a thousand factories and a million homes, roiled and tumbled as the gases worked their way to the surface in huge belches that burst with a stench you could almost feel. Ted was aboard only because he would never trust me to pilot in constricted waters, and he pushed her. He was always in a hurry. This time he had to be in Evanston by two.
It wasn’t until we put out a couple of light lines at the boatyard dock that I realized Nelson was launching his boat. He was hovering around the war surplus crane Burton uses for lowering light boats into the water, He waved to us, but. not with much enthusiasm. He was busy trying to get Burton to finish the job.
Tod and I walked over. All we could see was Burton’s big rump bent over the engine.
“How soon can you get to us, Burt?” It was our tacit agreement that Ted would handle things like this. People would listen to him, where they’d start an argument with me.
Burton stuck his head up over his shoulder. “’Take it easy,” he rasped. “I got him in the sling right now. One thing at a time.” He dove back into the engine. I watched Ted’s face grow red. We looked at Nelson.
“’The crane engine keeps stalling. He’s been working on it all morning.”
’Ted crawled into the cab to have a look.
“Well,”Nelson said, giving me a grin and pointing. “There she is.”
I remembered the boat as soon as I saw it. Burton had been shoving it around the yard for years, hoping some simp would come along and fall for it. She was an old work boat with lines like a log boom, and looked to be nearly as heavy, No wonder it had taken Nelson all summer to put her in shape. When I’d looked her over a couple of years earlier, back when Ted and I first started shopping for a boat, she had been no more than a husk of dryrotted timbers. The deckhouse Nelson had built — square-topped and slab-sided — was no improvement. It made her look like a floating privy.
“I did all the work myself,” he bragged. “What do you think?”
She looked to me like one good sea would rip her to pieces. “She’s roomy enough,” I finally said.
That made him happy. He spent lhe next fifteen minutes taking me around, showing how he’d filled in an extra bunk and rigged a water lank. It was all right. Plain and simple, and ready to be lived in if you were an old man who didn’t want or expect too much.
He’d changed his mind about taking the long way around, when he saw it would take the better part of the summer to finish the boat. “Have to be in St. Pete before the middle of October. So I figure to go down the river and along the Gulf Coast. Won’t have much time for fiddling around, but she’ll make it in plenty of time.”
That was a sensible idea. I couldn’t see her in any part of the Atlantic, however sheltered, not during winter. She wouldn’t have had much chance in the Lakes either, not even in a summer blow. The river was a much better idea.
We heard the crane grumble a couple of times and sputter into life. By the time we were on the ground she’d stalled again. It sounded like plugs to me, but I didn’t say anything, figuring if Burton didn’t know — and even if he did—Ted would have told him by now. After another half hour they had the engine running on most of its cylinders.
Burton took up the strain slowly. The sling tightened; Nelson’s boat resisted for a second or two, then left her cradle. ‘The wire sling stretched and grew taut, quivering a little, and I got nervous. She was a lot of boat for a crane that size. Burton eased her around to the water and started lowering away. Everything was moving along nicely, although I stayed well clear of the load.
As the boat came down to dock level Nelson grabbed a boat hook and jumped aboard. That started the boat swaying like a pendulum. Just then the motor backfired and stalled with a violent jerk. The boat bounced once at the end of the boom, then one line on the sling snapped with that hard, zinging sound wire makes when it goes. The other one went right after that —zing, Ming. I ducked.
The shock flipped Nelson out of the boat and into the water as if be were a paper doll. The boat shimmed down, hitting a piling before striking the water. She threw up a big splash, and the backwash put a heavy strain on the half-inch line we’d used to tie up the Beg trine. I heard it go with a soft pop. We jumped for our boat, Ted and I, and hit the deck just as our stern line parted. She wasn’t going anyplace, and there wasn’t any traffic to worry about, but it became instinct after a while to keep your boat under control, and we were acting on that impulse. The current carried us sluggishly into midstream while we were starting the motor, and the Beguine was nosing back toward the boatyard before I had a chance to look around at what had happened.
Nelson’s boat was down by the bow so much the stern was four feet out of the water. She was a goner. I couldn’t understand why she was going down so quickly, until I saw about twenty board feet of rotten planking, ripped out of her side when she brushed the piling, floating a few feet downstream. One second we were watching her in the sling, and the old man jumping aboard; the next she was going under, and we were out in midstream watching it.
I looked around but couldn’t see the old man. They didn’t find him until nearly midnight, when they grappled in the muck near Division Street. It looked as if he’d been hit in the head by a flailing sling. I suppose somebody should have jumped in after him, when the sling broke, but Jed and I were busy with our boat. Burton was too scared to do any thing but yelp and toss a life ring into the river, where it did nobody any good.
It was a hell of a way to go, for anybody, but especially bad for the old man. I wondered if he were conscious when he hit the water, if he knew he was ending up in all the filth he’d been trying all his life to escape. I hoped not. I hoped it wasn’l true, as much for his sake as mine. Ted probably didn’t care one way or the other. He wasn’t given to worrying about other people very much. Burton at least had tossed that useless life ring. But I’d been busy with the boat. The only thing I’d ever done for the old man was to give him a moth-eaten sweater, and a live-dollar bill he didn’t need. None of us ever thought to give him the thing he needed most. Maybe it was because we didn’t have it. to give.