The eternal struggle takes time.
—Professor Fate, The Great Race
Minnie searched for someone to flag the race—motorcycle versus horse and wagon; logic against hope as hope careened toward fortuna—and saw a kid standing in the crowd that had gathered before the spectacle in front of Saint Barnabas church.
Motioning the boy over to her cherry-red Indian cycle—brand new, engine purring—she asked the child’s name.
“Mickey,” he said, and she handed him a gleaming “Walking Liberty” 50-cent piece, speaking just loud enough to be heard above the cycle and the crowd.
“Take off your t-shirt and stand between us, . . . right in the street. Hold it above your head, and when I nod.”
“Bring it down,” said Mickey.
“Bring it down,” said Minnie, patting him on the back.
Bare-chested, Mickey walked three steps in front of the motorbike and Orlo the junkman’s war wagon, a chatter of wagers coursing through the crowd.
Minnie the Odd versus Orlo the Bereft on a bet that the junkman—now deep into the 23rd month without a word from his lover—had agreed to without taking the moment that would have dissuaded him.
The pay-off: Loser spends an entire day with the winner.
“Everyone wins,” said Minnie proffering the challenge.
Everybody loses, thought Orlo, blurting out, “You’re on.”
A priest walking his dog hollered, “Got a dollar on the junkman.”
Shining Liberty and a red-hot dollar; extravagance in the teeth of the Great Depression.
Minnie to the Baltimore manor born and the reverend a high-rolling pretre of the One True Faith as the undertow of the Crash coursed through every alley; swarms of locusts so omnivorous that the state legislature allowed a black man—a trade unionist, well nigh to a Communist, a Negro—to address the chamber for the first time since the Assembly was established when the Free State was a colony.
“People are starving,” implored Leonard Patterson. “It does not have to be this way.”
But it was that way, all across the land and the race—a spur-of-the-moment, cockamamie idea between strangers—was the best thing to happen to the near side of West Baltimore since the circus train unloaded beasts, ballerinas and buffoons at the B&O Roundhouse on the Fourth of July.
A horse pulling a wagon against a motorcycle driven by a nut in a race around the block!
A man with a penchant for long-shots—is that not faith? —the priest took daily walks from the nearby seminary over to Barnabas to check on one of the less privileged flocks and play the penny lottery with kerchiefed housewives who kept book in cookie jars.
“Got a dollar begs to differ, Father,” called out a black laborer named Milton, led to believe that if your father were not in a trade union, you would never be. He’d been helping the junkman hump six windows of fine stained glass from the church into the wagon when Minnie roared onto the scene.
“Betting against me, Milton?” asked Orlo.
The priest bet with his gut and a skim of the collection basket. Milton gambled out of desperation.
And Orlo—whose bones ached for a lover on the other side of town, a trapped, if-we’re-going-to-run-why-aren’t-we-leaving housewife who took in mending—Orlo, the Salvage King, never wagered with anything as trifling as money.
He’d dodged the butcher blades her family used to break down milk-fed lamb to honor the Resurrection. And, in the days of assignations and secrets, when the young mother still believed in him, danced just beyond the violent guesswork of her seafaring husband to see her one more time.
All a horse-and-wagon of a different color.
The contest would run from the front steps of the stripped bare Barnabas (the Catholics were unloading it on the Baptists), around the block, and back to the front steps.
Milton—realizing he hadn’t been paid yet for the day’s work (now incomplete) and that the dollar he’d put on the motorcycle had been a week in the making—wondered what had snapped in a melancholy man he’d known to be the most sagacious of scavengers.
Before he could suggest that maybe they should unload the windows, Minnie nodded to Mickey, and the urchin brought down his shirt.
Off went the junkman on a torpedo of horseflesh, jingle-bells rattling, hooves clopping as loud as bricks slapping a boardwalk as Orlo whipped the animal in the delusion that things can be different than they are meant to be.
The priest’s dog slipped his leash and gave chase.
“SPORT! SPORT, COME BACK!”
Sport did not.
Minnie sat back on her bike and savored the burlesque: a man hanging by a thin but tenacious sinew hammering a nag a half-click from the charnel house in a ghetto chariot race.
What Minnie did not know (the subtleties of devotion beyond her ken, she only knew the blues from the radio the maid kept on low in the kitchen) was that Bon-Bon would pour her guts onto the asphalt to please her master long after her machine had run out of gas.
As she tarried, Mickey took off running, shouting louder than the cacophony of hooves and hecklers: “HOW MUCH DO I GET IF I BEAT THEM BOTH?”
“Quarter against a dollar on the kid!” yelled a woman scrubbing steps on the chance that the cycle might crash, the horse would drop dead, and the waif would best them both.
“See you on that, Hazel,” came another a few doors down, the asinine drama turning a humid Thursday morning into farce and fun; people without a nickel betting two bit for the hell of it.
People were whooping and hollering and carrying on, grinning up and down the street, looking out their front doors, down from bedroom windows and out of hole-in-the-wall businesses that hadn’t yet succumbed: the barbershop and the schmata store and the Red Dragon Pleasure Club, everybody craning their necks for a peep.
“Can you believe this?”
Minnie pulled the goggles of her leather aviator helmet over her eyes, kicked the Indian Scout into gear and gunned it, overtaking Orlo in 15 seconds.
Passing the horse-and-wagon on the inside, Minnie reached out and smacked Bon-Bon’s churning haunch for good luck—“you sick whore,” thought Orlo, holding fast, the rattling wagon falling behind quickly at the first turn.
Mickey ran like he did to stay a half-step ahead of his grandmother’s broom—“You little potato-nosed agitator,” she’d yell if he bounced a ball against the side of their house when he damn well knew she was “resting her eyes”—and in a dozen strides, the boy had made it to the back of Orlo’s wagon.
Reaching, reaching, reaching . . .
. . . about to grab hold of the tail-board, when. . . .
A window rattled loose from a knot Milt had tied in haste, the gate fell open when the wagon hit a pothole, and a heavy piece of stained glass slid out and struck the boy in the chest, Orlo unaware and the motorcycle far ahead with Minnie shrieking like a lunatic; not yet arriving at the finish line but where she always wanted to be: far beyond herself.
The boy and the window fell to the street together, shards of glass in his palms and knees: green, red, yellow and blue mixing with scarlet gushing from his wounds; slivers of brown thorns that had pierced the most sacred of hearts ground into his knees, his palms, the right side of his face.
“Oooh,” said the priest. “That hurts.”
“Almost caught the junkman,” said Milt.
“Forget them boo-hoo-hoos,” said a woman standing near them with a dust-mop, “Little Mick better go get his shirt out of the street before Grams puts her foot up his ass.”
Sweating and breathing hard (but not crying, not in front of everybody), Mickey got to his feet and put one of the larger shards into his pocket. As he hobbled to the curb, the reverend’s dog stopped to lick the boy’s blood from the asphalt.
“SPORT!” called the priest, moving toward the spot where the kid had fallen. But Sport had lapped his fill and was gone.
A barber who saw Mickey go down while dusting off a customer—“Got-damn, Joe, you see that?!—brought the boy inside and set him in an empty chair as the customer dropped a few coins in Joe’s open palm. Mickey had never been in a colored barbershop before and never would again.
Using a pair of tweezers from a jar of rubbing alcohol, the barber began picking granules of glass from the eight-year-old’s palms, knees and forehead—a crescent between his pale orange eyebrows to bear, thin and smooth and shiny, for the rest of his life.
“Look at me, son,” said the barber as Mickey turned to the sound of cheering on the street.
“Is it over?” said the kid, craning his neck toward the street.
“Stay still, boy,” said Joe, turning for a bandage.
“Christ,” said a woman cleaning her windows with newspaper and vinegar.“The circus done come ‘round twicet this year.”
Yes, indeed: Clowns and preachers with audience participation; dogs and blood and guts and sparks; hokey-men with brooms to gather the soot and broken glass in a working town where work was hard to come by; nothing to cheer ’cept madcap Minnie and the done-lost-his-mind junkman rushing ’round an ivy-covered chapel named for the Jew who introduced Paul to Peter; a gutted sanctuary that would soon be turned into a parking garage when the Baptists defaulted on the mortgage and the Catholics unloaded it at auction.
Minnie took the second turn—now behind the churchyard, which took up the city block—with Orlo fading fast and the commotion startling a man unloading a small wooden barrel at Zwagil’s schmata store.
Orlo was pretty sure he knew what was in the barrel because he knew every truck, its driver, and their schedule from one side of town to the other.
If the barrel contained what he thought it did.
And if he could get the delivery man—whom he happened to know woke up with a headache and a bad case of jitters every morning—to drop the keg before Minnie passed him.
He could not, but Minnie did, riding close enough to nearly sideswipe the man who hiccuped a weighty spit of bile, choked, and lost his grip. The barrel banged against the plank used to roll goods out of the truck and fell hard on the street: hoops bent, staves loose, the head popping free to spill thousands of shiny, one-inch upholstery tacks onto the street.
Just in time for Bon-Bon to gallop upon a thick carpet of tiny spikes.
Of the sparkling abundance, a single one—perfectly balanced upon its round head—made its way past the worn shoe on Bon-Bon’s right front foot and into the delicate sponge in the middle of her hoof.
Bucking in pain—a roaring trumpet, the lingua of Chincoteague from which her ancestors had come—Bon-Bon yanked the wagon into a pothole and kept going. Orlo held on as best he could; the horse kicking and jumping, the wagon on two wheels and the whole kit-and-kaboodle nearly flipping over as Orlo whipped the animal to stay on course, whipped it to go faster, whipped it—with Minnie nowhere in sight—the way he would have whipped himself if only he could.
Years of squelched anger and resentment drove his lash (Orlo would spend the rest of his life arguing with himself about the beating, claiming he didn’t know such cruelty was in him, knowing very well that he did), and if the horse had dropped dead in the street, he might have jumped down and continued to thrash the brute.
But Bon-Bon’s heart was stronger than her master’s mind, and somehow she righted herself, the wagon landed upright and what was left of the sham continued apace. She kept going with adrenalin and agony—going, going, going in a tortured, limping trot until Orlo was delivered to the finish line.
“I won!” cackled Minnie, blowing the horn while circling a cop who had more than a few questions. “I won!”
Pointing to the junkman, she bellowed: “And he lost.”
Hobbled, Bon held up her injured leg, and Orlo climbed down to have a look, watching Minnie taunt the cop while pulling the tack from the animal’s foot.
Minnie pretended not to hear, and the cop shoved his espantoon into the spokes of her front wheel. She jumped off just in time as the machine jerked away, wobbled a few yards and fell over; engine still running, back wheel spinning.
“Hey,” she said, removing her goggles, deaf to the riot act being read for her benefit. “I could have been killed.”
“Right,” said the cop, turning toward the wagon. “Orlo, wanna tell me about this?”
Oh boy, do I, thought the junkman, taking a clean rag and pressing it against Bon’s foot. I’ve been dying to tell someone about it.
Orlo shook his head—no—and continued to soothe the horse; feeling very small, a tear in his eye like the ones he’d never cried for Eleni, the ones she still shed for him.
“You know this woman?”
“No,” said Orlo, rubbing Bon-Bon’s leg, whispering apologies. “Not really.”
“Then what the hell were you two idiots doing scaring the crap out of the neighborhood?”
“Nobody was scared,” piped up Mickey, who’d run over from the barbershop with fresh bandages on his knees, his elbows, and his face. The crowd cheered!
“WE AIN’T SCARED OF NOTHING!”
The cop left with a message for each of them.
“Never known you to be an asshole, Or.”
No one ever had.
To Minnie: “I strongly suggest you go back to wherever you came from.”
The cop left, money changed hands in the crowd, and Orlo told Minnie to call the bet.
“Me and you,” she said. “Tomorrow, all day.”
“Whatever you want.”