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 "Inland Empire Hotel."

Graydon trudged up the staircase to Door 3, 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 finished the kitchenette hotel apartment. 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. The 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, sat crookedly in the corner.

They'd lived in this hotel apartment since late winter. Alex Johns had finished up his high-iron riveting job on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, built to replace the fallen original. The old suspension bridge, nick-named Galloping Gertie, flogged itself to destruction in a wind storm. Alex moved the family to eastern Washington to a job at Rocky Reach dam near Wenatchee. It was one of many dams that turned the free-flowing Columbia River into a series of stair-stepped reservoirs. Working on dams was regular work for his step-father. His first big job had been the Grand Coulee Dam, built in the twilight years of the Great Depression.

Construction work ended when the nation was thrust into the second half of the great world war. Private First Class Alex Johns was ordered by the U.S. Army to a remote arctic atoll no one other than a few hungry fishermen and a handful of neglected native peoples had known existed. Japanese military strategists sent an invasion force to the Aleutian Island chain as a feint, a diversion to draw American military assets away from a greater Japanese goal in the middle Pacific.

Alex Johns drove heavy equipment in a battalion construction unit. He escaped a sub-zero blizzard with frostbitten lungs, emerging from the storm with three survivors from the construction crew riding his bulldozer. He was discharged as a buck sergeant on 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 purely to enjoy himself before he went in the hole. Going in the hole was iron-worker slang for falling to death from the high iron.

He met a red-headed divorcee at a Fort Lewis U.S.O. club dance. While he waited for his discharge papers to be cut, he'd 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. He resumed civilian life with an instant family. They packed themselves into a second-hand 1941 Hudson 4-door sedan to hit the road as gypsies in 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 bloodied in fist-fights with bullies and suffered humiliation from teachers who disliked construction camp trash.

He resembled his biological father. He inclined toward studious introspection and escaped into himself whenever his step-father was blustering drunk.

His five year old half-brother, Alex Jr., was sometimes called cue ball by his father who would drunkenly brag about sinking one in the corner pocket one fateful 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 uprooting were not factors in his life. His world was mom and dad and big brother. Soon he know a school where he would 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 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. Alex Sr. made very good money as a card-carrying journeyman iron-worker, but he brought home damned little of it. Years of drunken rages followed by self-pitying promises of "I'll do better, honey!" had worn her down to a silent acceptance that nothing would change. Her best hope was that it might stay tolerable, but even that hope was dimming. She sat up very late that Friday evening, alone in the dismal hotel apartment with brooding thoughts and her two sons.

Monday brought another basalt-canyon, bake-oven day to the Columbia River desert. 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 copy of the Daily World under her arm. She sat down to the wobbly-legged table and began scanning the want ads, 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' mouth set in a tight, grim line. The next moment she was scrabbling through her hide-away cookie tin for a fistful of change. Her hurried footsteps thumped down the stairs to the pay phone in the lobby.

Alex Johns came home that night, on time since 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 find packed suitcases and a battered green foot locker stacked on the floor. The boys, pale and wide-eyed, sat on the sagging couch. Dee Johns, her eyes hard and her mouth set in that same 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.

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Story tagged with:
Coming of Age / Drama / Magic / Young Adult /