Having been named after the 32nd and 26th Presidents of the United States of America, Franklin Theodore McDairmid had not lived up to his father’s expectations. Only his father called him Franklin, his mother and grandparents always called him Frank, at school he was Frankie, at college Frankie T. or Frankie T. McD, around the neighbourhood he was known as simply F.T. McD. The reduction of his name as he progressed through life mirrored his father’s receding hopes for his only child.

It had gone badly before birth. His twin brother hadn’t survived in the womb because Frankie had monopolised their mother’s blood and food supply. Whenever Frankie was given into trouble as a child he was sure he was being held responsible for this fratricide. His mother passed away when Frankie was five years old from liver cirrhosis. His father raised him with strict morals and rules and little practical guidance. Occasionally when they tossed a baseball to each other in the park or went to the movies or ate ice cream at the beach, Frankie imagined they had a loving relationship. When his father met Doris and she became his step-mother, Frankie was left to find his own way into manhood.

He hung around with the local boys his age, but never had a close friend. His school grades never fell below average, nor did they ever rise above acceptable. As soon as he was of age, his father signed him up to join the army. The war in Vietnam was entering a new decade. On his first day of basic training Franklin broke his leg falling on the obstacle course and was discharged.

In his early twenties he moved to Jackson County and worked at the Ingalls shipyard, helping the war effort by welding rivets on the USS Spruance. He worked diligently for long hours and was rewarded with back pain that never left him and low pay. When the ship was launched his services were no longer required. With his pronounced limp, hunched shoulders and average education, Frankie made his way to Chicago by virtue of falling asleep drunk one night in a rail freight carriage that was heading that way. He got work welding more rivets on the Sears Tower skyscraper. When it was finished it was the tallest building in the world.

On a December evening he hobbled down Michigan Avenue, bracing himself against the winter chill blowing in from the lake. The large stores were brightly lit and filled with customers. Frankie had no money to buy any presents, and no one to give any presents to. He had used the last of his wages to post a card to his father, now happily retired and enjoying the sunshine in Miami. Frankie didn’t expect to get a reply. The rent on his apartment downtown was due two days before Christmas and he had to figure out how he could raise the money to pay it. Having stared at mannequins wearing warm winter clothing in the Brooks Brothers store window he carried on along the main thoroughfare. Crossing over the Michigan Avenue Bridge he stared at the gleaming Wrigley building and bumped into a man looking out to the river. An angry face was on the verge of shouting when a look of recognition spread across it.

‘F.T. McD?’ he said. Frankie tried to place the healthy, full face that stared at him. He drew a blank. ‘It’s me, Conway. Conway Carruthers’ the man continued. A dim memory sparked from Frankie’s distant past in Brooklyn.

‘Double C?’ Frankie asked, recalling a popular rotund kid.

‘You do remember me. What are you doing in Chicago?’

‘I helped build the Sears Tower,’ Frankie answered. He said this instead of admitting to his current plight.

‘My, haven’t you scaled the heights since Red Hook,’ Conway said, recalling their old district in South Brooklyn. Frankie nodded, not wanting to dispel the idea that he was a success in some way. As passers-by had to shuffle round them on the busy pavement, Conway took in the full appearance of his childhood acquaintance.

‘Let me buy you dinner,’ he announced. ‘I have a table booked round the corner. Good food, warmth and good music.’ Before Frankie could step away and refuse, Conway had taken him by the elbow. They turned onto North Dearborn Street and Frankie was led through a dim doorway with a neon sign above it that read ‘House of Blues’. Conway had a word with the doorman and they were swept inside and placed at a table at the back of the club. On a small stage at the front a blues trio were performing.

‘Two glasses of your best whiskey,’ Conway ordered as they were seated, ‘and two of whatever is the special tonight.’

The two men sat in silence. Conway watched the trio perform, tapping along with his fork on the table. Frankie fidgeted and stared at the table, avoiding the reproachful glances from well-dressed patrons. Only when the Shrimp DeJonghe arrived did Conway turn to face him.

‘Perfect,’ he smiled, ‘a local speciality. Have you ever tried it?’ Frankie had never heard of it. The garlic and sherry breadcrumbs covering the largest shrimps he’d ever seen were completely new to him.

For the next few minutes they ate together until their plates were empty. Frankie’s stomach ached with the foreign feeling of fulfilment.

‘That is something, you building the Sears Tower,’ Conway said, having wiped his mouth with his napkin. ‘I was wondering how high it was when you bumped into me on the bridge. You can just see the top of it from there.’

‘I just welded some rivets,’ Frankie said.

‘Rivets that hold up the tallest building in the world, F.T., that is something.’ Conway repeated and then slugged the last of his whiskey. He signalled for the bill to be brought over. The blues trio were having a break. Frankie made an attempt at filling the silence.

‘What do you do?’ he asked.

‘Oil business. Matter-of-fact that’s why I’m in Chicago. Been a tough couple of months, I’m sure you’ve heard about it.’ Frankie recalled vague headlines about something called OPEC.

‘Things looking up?’ Frankie asked. Conway paused after a slight shake of his head.

‘You alone, Frankie?’ Conway asked.

‘I guess.’ Frankie answered.

‘No wife, no kids?’ Frankie shook his head. ‘It’s a sad thing to reach our age and be alone.’ Conway continued. ‘Better if you’ve always been alone, F.T., keep it that way.’

The bill arrived and Conway counted out the cash to pay. ‘You always had it tough, F.T., we never should have been so mean to you.’

He paused as he was about to put his wallet back in his jacket pocket.

‘I want you to have this, F.T.’ He took the remaining bills from his wallet and handed them to Frankie. ‘Take this as well.’ He gave Frankie a small plastic card. ‘That’s a bank card. Outside here there is a bank machine. Put the card in it. My number is 6-7-3-9. I want you to take out all the money that is left in the account.’

‘But Conway,’ Frankie protested, looking at more money than he had ever held at one time and the promise of more to come. He had heard about these cards and seen the machines in the walls, but never had a bank account of his own.

Conway interrupted him. ‘I have no need for it anymore,’ he said. ‘I’m leaving tonight and I won’t be back.’

‘Won’t you need money where you’re going?’

Conway looked at him. ‘You’ve fallen on hard times, I can see that, nothing to be ashamed of. I want you to use this money to get yourself on your feet again. Scale those heights again.’

Outside the club Conway shook Frankie’s hand and pointed out the machine in the wall. ‘Get the money now, F.T., don’t wait until the morning, it might be gone by then.’ With that the boy from South Brooklyn turned and strode off, disappearing into the rush of Chicagoans.

That evening Frankie walked to Union Station. He was richer than he had ever been in his life. The last train had left for the night. He sat on a wooden bench in the grand hall and drifted off to sleep. When he awoke in the morning he bought a ticket to New York. There was always opportunity there. It felt good to pay for a ticket and sit in a comfortable seat rather than travelling freight. Frankie wasn’t to know that within two years New York would be declared bankrupt.

As he boarded the silver train he didn’t see the early morning Tribune announcing the suicide of a man late the night before. The man was the first person to kill themselves jumping from the top of the tallest building in the world. It made the front page alongside the latest developments enveloping the 37th President of the United States.


img_1893
Wallis Tower, Chicago (formerly Sear Tower)

Written as an assignment for a creative writing course I am currently attending.

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11 thoughts on “AMERICAN BLUES

  1. OOH. Something far longer here Iain and so well crafted it quite me from making some quip about his problems arising from the fact he was only named after two presidents and how there was no president McDairmid. Give yourself a medal. Excellent piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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