Boston Housing Project

Jerry, playing cards, said, “Pat, can you get me another beer?” He tossed his hand in disgust, a pair of nothings going nowhere. His brothers Dave and Don (they were twins on their way to Nam in the next week) snickered and threw in their cards, too. The other brother, Johnny, crowed in such a way, and collected the Lincoln pennies, leaving one behind for the next ante. “Pat, can you get me one, too?” he said. Pat, the first born of Old Man Murphy’s children, had been sitting in the living room on the couch nursing a highball, listening to Patsy Cline. “Crazy” was on the record player, Ray Price and Ray Charles, and, of course, Hank, were next in the 45 stack. Pat got up, “feeling good” (maybe toogood), and tottered to the kitchen to get more beer. They all chain-smoked and smoke filled the room.

In the kitchen, she saw her son, Jimmy, on a chair in the pantry holding a loaded German luger put high up on the shelf (he’d only seen her hiding something) out of his reach. Jimmy was turning it around in his hands, when his mother screamed, “Jimmy!” The brothers came running in, first, Dave and Don (who would become firemen on their return of tours of Nam), then Johnny, whose smile suggested that he may have suspected what the ruckus was about. Jerry sat at the card table and just listened in — he was “feeling good,” as they say, and kept chilling to Ray croons.  The kid pushed the gun back where he found it and climbed down, looking terrified. “Don’t ever touch that again,” said his Mom, and gave him a half-hearted swat at the head, a tender rebuff.

“Aw, Jesus,” said Dave. “What do you have that here for, Pat? Are you crazy?”

“Johnny wanted me to hold it for him,” she said. Dave sneered at his brother. Cain before Abel was dissed.

“You fuckin asshole,” Don chimed in. “You didn’t do enough to Pat’s life out in Kansas City?”

“She’ll need it here with all the niggers everywhere,” Johnny laughed.

“Don’t worry, Pat,” said Jerry. “We’ll get you out of here.”

Johnny, the smirker, said nothing. His wolfish, sheepish grin shrank (he thought the gun discovery was funny) and he looked like Dr. Seuz’s grinch for a moment, shitfaced. Don was referring to how Johnny and another sibling, Danny, in trouble with the law in Boston, one, for allegedly skipping school, and, the other, for hotwiring cars for joy rides, were sent out to Pat, and her family, by the anxious grandmother of the boy with the gun, who feared that they would be sent to the Shirley School for Boys and diddled by ex-priests and tattooed gym enthusiasts with propensities they worked like iron. Lots of reps. Lots of karma. Kids came out of Shirley already career criminals prepared to do their bit to deconstruct civilization and add some more discontents.

The skinny, they quickly collapsed the sister’s nuclear family in Missouri with their delinquent behavior that drove Pat’s husband (Bill) berserk. The gun boy’s Dad skedaddled to Vegas, to drink and to live on the brink, rebounding from girl to girl. Meanwhile, Pat and the kids and uncles were flown back to Boston, still delinquents, but now Grandma had bigger fish to fry with the blowback of four more mouths to feed and four more loads of laundry to wash, which she made Pat do, like she had made her do for her seven siblings growing up, until Pat had practically eloped to California with a sailor (Bill) based at the Charlestown Navy Yard, where Old Ironsides was anchored and was wont to attract weekend warriors of naval history. Pat had met (Bill) after a rodeo he’d been in at the Garden.  (Jimmy would later write a poem about the Dad he never knew: “In holding you so near me, O! / I couldn’t help yahooing. Bizarre? / Well, that may be, but did you know / My father was a rodeo star?”) They would stay stuffed in grandma’s apartment in the then all-white Franklin Field projects until they could find their own place. The short, they ended up here, at Columbia Point housing project, throw-away whites in a Black man’s world.  But a sober Pat was a beautiful person, and whereas her brothers used that N-expletive all time, even on visits to her here, she got along, her smile was genuine, and she’d borrow off-the-cuff for them at The Beehive stores, and they’d lend her small cash whenever she needed a small bottle of whiskey.

“You’re an asshole,” yelled Jerry to John, his song interrupted. Johnny’s grim returned. Pat slur-scolded Jimmy further and told him to go to bed. The men went back to playing penny ante.  Pat sat and returned to listening to Eddy Arnold, “Make the World Go Away.” She had a highball.  Jimmy went into the bedroom he shared with his brother, Bobby, who was sleeping on the bed. Jimmy wasn’t tired though. The music made him sad, not tired. The gun incident seemed like the start of something dark. Why did Mom have a gun? Why were the uncles always here, as if his home were some kind of club?

Jimmy went to his “fort,” under the bed.  He liked to go there to be alone.  He would lie on his back and light matches for brief stints of light, like a firefly —  no, like a wavering vigil candle in church lit for prayers. He would hum bright songs. He would wish for things when the fire was lit and lay on his back when it wasn’t. He would remember and imagine and sometimes get them mixed. He remembered the little Black girl on a bicycle who ran him over the week before, who could have veered, but meanly came right at him and bowled him over and kept right on going, no apology, and he lay there terrified as if a whole new world had just opened.  He recalled how Bozo the Clown, from the WHDH TV station up the road, who’d come to the community center to distribute baubles and Hershey’s kisses and aggravating laughs, was taunted, even tomato-ed upside his head. He remembered being chased by a wino out at the rat-infested landfill next to the new sewerage treatment plant that looked out at the harbor who spent his time there looking for copper he could sell and who saw the dump as his turf.  He wasn’t the only wino there who felt that way. And sometimes they warred over scraps. He recalled the white-haired Candy Man, who drove around in a black station wagon, windows painted over, that looked like a hearse, with the candy sold from the back of the car, and who only came to the white section of the Columbia Point project.  And he could still see the gooey guts of the six year old girl who’d been run over by a dump truck returning from a landfill run outside the tiny shopping area they called The Beehive.

Jimmy lit a match. He would never be able to account for it later, but he saw a hanging dust bunny from the box spring, had an urge to light it, and did. The flame kept spreading. He couldn’t put it out. He panicked. He woke his brother. The acrid smoke poured out of the bedroom when he opened the door and they raced out. The uncles and Pat panicked; the music was stopped; the card table was tipped; Pat ran into her room to retrieve the infant, Mikey. The firemen were called and came with their axes and hoses, and the neighborhood enjoyed a spectacle, while the insobrietous uncles and Pat and her kids looked like they didn’t know what had hit them. And when Johnny inexplicably used the N-word and it was overheard by a person of color, a sweet woman Jimmy’s mother knew — now mean as the hit-and-run Black girl on the bicycle — invited the “whiteys” to ixnay or be fried. The brothers and Pat and her kids squeezed into Jerry’s Impala and Johnny’s Thunderbird (which everyone said he stole) and drove off in the night in haste. Pat and her kids spent the night at a shelter at the Chardon Street Shelter for Women and Children in the West End, down by the Garden that Bill Russell built.

In the morning, the mother was taken to the hospital to begin her recovery from a “nervous breakdown” and her children were put into foster care and eventually split up to endure their family ordeal alone. Eventually, Jimmy became adjunct professor of philosophy at the new state university across from Columbia Point. He shared an office with a view to the new JFK Library, where folks were wont to go on weekends to remember Camelot. He would never get on the tenure track. But he wrote existential poetry and invited starry-eyed coeds from his intro courses to “see” him during his office hours to discuss Kant’s cant and Hegel’s haggles and made love on a blanket on the tiled floor, red wine nearby and a lit vigil candle he’d stolen on a visit to LaSalette Seminary in Ipswich one summer. He had almost become a brother with LaSalette. So close.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.