Taking you back again to the time when I was a little boy; eight years old, living with mom and dad in the first-floor apartment on South Ingleside Avenue. We had a living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. Furniture was functional and looked nice. Dad kept his precious books on a shelf next to the bed and Mom had her sewing machine set up in a corner near the back door. My Lincoln Logs, toy trucks and trains were everywhere. Not a lot of space, but I was happy. And I’d say we were all happy. Dad was working at a Downtown theatre and Mom catering. We lived the average Southside of Chicago life in the mid-Nineteen-fifties.
This tale unfolds on a relatively mild winter day, by the city’s weather standards. No snow on the ground, and it wasn’t nearly as cold as it had been in January when the temperature settled for two straight weeks in the single digits and below. Nevertheless, the boiler broke down on this particular February Saturday and there was no heat in the building. Thermometer hovered in the low forties. We stayed warm burning the oven on the cooking stove and wearing robes and sweaters. Mom and Dad kept their nip handy: Old Taylor bourbon with the ice water chaser.
For the most part, I passed the time sitting in front of the TV watching Shirley Temple movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons. A couple of times I went out in the backyard to play when some of the other neighborhood kids showed up. But for the most part, the day was drizzly and overcast the ground muddy. We didn’t stay outside very long.
The phone rang about one in the afternoon and my mother answered it. Gave my father the receiver and he spoke briefly to someone.
“That was Barnett,” he told Mom. “Boiler man is coming at three. Some new fellow. I’m supposed to let him in the basement. That guy, Mr. Percy, who’s been working on the thing is in the hospital. Hurt his back.”
“I thought I recognized that old Barnett rascal’s voice,” Momma said. “Thank goodness we don’t have to suffer all night here without any heat.”
Dad chuckled and shrugged. “Hopefully, it can be fixed. No telling how old that boiler is.”
Barnett was the building’s owner. I’d seen him a few times. He was a middle-aged man with white whiskers that looked like a frosty crust on his dark brown face. He entrusted my father with the key to the basement to be used in emergencies, such as what was at hand with the boiler. My mother didn’t particularly like the old landlord because he tended to be rather lax when it came to maintaining the building. Dad probably didn’t like him either, but he never said anything one way or the other.
When it got be near three o’clock, Dad put on his coat and went out down the back stairs to meet the boiler man. I followed behind him, just to be busy. He happened to meet up with another building resident, Big Barry, and they started chit-chatting while standing outside the basement door. Big Barry was a hulking fellow, not particularly tall, but powerfully built. One time, I’d seen him beat the daylights out of another big guy in an alley fight. He and my dad were drinking buddies, and sometimes they went to baseball games together and I tagged along. Big Barry had a son my age named Trevor, and sometimes Trevor came too.
A green truck pulled up in the alley at a quarter past three. A blubbery red-faced fellow wearing horn rim glasses got out and approached my father and Big Barry. A dirty gray cap set sideways on his head and sprigs of hair sprouted from his ears. He said something to my dad and they headed toward the basement door. Big Barry followed behind them. Another man, whom I couldn’t see clearly, stayed behind in the truck.
I could tell from the boiler man’s haughty body language, slinging his shoulders from side to side, that he was being snotty. Dad opened the basement door with the key and they stepped inside while I watched what was going on through one of the smutty windows. There was a hole in the bottom of the glass, enabling me to hear the voices.
“She conked out this morning,” Dad said. “Heard a lot of clanging in the pipes.”
The blubbery boiler man gave my father a contemptuous sneer and snuffed his nose.
“This is the second time this old contraption done broke down this winter,” Big Barry added.
Momentarily, the second man who’d lingered in the truck – apparently a helper – came in lugging a bagful of tools. He was a scrawny guy with a dirty face, and yellow hair like broom straws.
The boiler man started talking to each other in a foreign tongue. They dumped tools out on the floor and started turning valves and loosening bolts on the huge tank. Dad and Big Barry hung around watching for a few minutes before they left out and headed upstairs to our apartment.
Big Barry went to the store and brought back a six-pack of beer, and he and my father got a card game going while my mother tended to her sewing. I worked in my coloring book and watched TV; enjoyed hot dogs and French fries for snack. Now and then we heard bellowing voices and banging noises coming from the basement.
It was almost six o’clock when my dad and Big Barry went back down to the basement, and I traipsed behind them, assuming my post at the window. Darkness had fallen and a sprinkle was in the air. The blubbery workman was packing up his tools. His helper had gone somewhere in the truck. The boiler was making the customary humming noise when it was heating up the water for the radiators.
Dad said something to the blubbery man, who looked away from him with a disgusted sneer on his face. Dad seemed perplexed for a moment and glanced at Big Barry. And again my father addressed the workman.
“It’s all fixed,” the man said, sharply. Then he turned away from my father and blabbed something in the foreign tongue.
“That was when Dad raised his voice and told him, “You old crumb. I know what you’re saying.” Then he slapped the boiler man across the mouth with the back of his hand.
Big Barry looked shocked, eyes open in round-eyed amazement.
The boiler man’s face turned red with rage as he shouted something else in the foreign tongue, and my father fired on him again, this time with his fist, knocking him to the dirty basement floor and sending his glasses flying.
“What did he say?” Big Barry asked.
“This old Kraut is calling us all kinds of dumb monkeys and black bastards in German,” Dad replied.
“Oh, yeah?” Big Barry said. And as the boiler man was getting up, Barry punched him in the face.
I turned away from the window and ran upstairs. “Momma, Momma!” I shouted when I burst into the apartment. She was standing at the stove, stirring something in a pot. “Daddy and Big Barry beating up the boiler man!”
My mother rushed out of the apartment and down the backstairs. I came right behind her. When she got to the basement, the boiler man was down on all fours, his nose bloody. Dad was looming over him, ready to lay on another blow. Big Barry stood by, grinning like an imp.
“Don’t you all hurt this white man down here!” she shouted. And she went and grabbed my father by the arm and pulled him away. Big Barry followed.
“My God, my God,” Momma wailed as she coaxed my father up the stairs and Big Barry went on to his third-floor apartment.
Dad was fuming when we got inside the apartment.
“What got into you, attacking that man down there?” Momma questioned. “You gone crazy?!”
Dad told Momma what the man had said in the foreign language. She shook her head in disgust.
I laughed. What the boiler man hadn’t known was that my father knew some German because he’d taken it as foreign language when he was in college. Sometimes just for fun, he’d say things in German around the house.
“Ain’t no telling what’s going to happen now,” Momma said. She was really fidgety and nervous.
“I should’ve broken his jaw,” Dad said, sitting down at the eating table and pouring himself a shot of bourbon. He then got on the phone and called Mr. Barnett. Kept his voice low.
I knelt down and watched from the bedroom window. The green truck was back and the boiler workers were loading their tools. Both men kept looking up at the building and pointing. Evidently, they didn’t know where my dad or Big Barry had come from. Momma shooed me away from the window and turned the lights out in the apartment. Told me, “Go sit down somewhere and keep quiet.” I soon heard the van roll away.
I was peeping out from the side of the window shade maybe a half hour later when a police car, looking like a giant black bug, pulled up in the alley. A couple of officers got out. The blubbery boiler man was with them. I got real scared and told Momma. She got scared, too. Dad just sat there at the table, sipping his bourbon, glaring thunderously off into space. Moments later, Momma jumped when a knock came at the back door. None of us moved or made a sound. Again the knock came, but we stayed quiet. Footsteps soon clomped away and proceeded up the stairs. I felt really terrified. I just knew my daddy was going to jail.
But after a while the cops left. Apparently, none of the other tenants gave up any information, and I was sure Big Barry didn’t answer his door. And evidently, Mr. Barnett hadn’t told on my daddy either.
“That was a foolish thing you all did, beating up that boiler man,” Momma preached to my dad later the evening when she served dinner while the apartment felt pleasantly warm again.
“Old kraut got what he deserved,” Dad replied mockingly, obviously feeling his bourbon. “Figured he could come around us colored folks and talk all his insulting talk and nobody would know. Fooled him, didn’t we? He’d lucky Big Barry didn’t thump him again. That guy hits harder than Joe Louis.”
I didn’t say anything because I knew Mom wouldn’t approve, but I felt glad my dad and Big Barry had jumped on the boiler man. And in her heart, I know my mom felt glad, too.
A few days later, a couple of detectives came around the building and knocked on some door. They surprised mom, and she almost jumped out of her skin when she opened the door and saw those two white cops were standing there. Dad was at work and she told them she didn’t know anything about what had happened in the basement. And again, none of the other tenants apparently said anything.
That last visit by the cops turned out to be the end of it. No more lawmen came snooping.
The boiler went on the blink again a couple of months later, but this time the regular fix-it man, Mr. Percy, came to make the repairs.
Paris Smith is a South Side writer with three published collections of short stories, and he is a member of one of Chicago’s longest active writers groups, The Perspectivists. Much of his work has been described as if Black Stephen King moved to the South Side. His other works can be found at Penknife Press.