In the early morning night of January the car won’t turn over. Jim tries again, turning the key while pumping the gas pedal. Closer, still no luck. The car, rocking side to side, a ship in troubled waters. The third time, twisting the key, pumping the gas, murmuring “C’ moooooon,” with the revving of the engine, it finally turns over.
A maroon hatchback, the rear passenger side window duct taped, and a mix of black snow, rust, and road salt creeping up the rear quarter panel. The windshield, coated in a sheet of ice, is useless. Jim starts the wipers, hoping it’s a thin layer. They scrape loudly over the ice with no effect.
4:00 AM isn’t meant for humans. His mental engine still unthawing, running on habit, thoughts coming as slowly as his body moves. This isn’t a time to enjoy, just another thing to get through.
In the passenger seat, Nathan burrows like a turtle into his off-brand puffy winter coat. He’s pulled his arms inside, the hood over his head, only his pale chin visible. Jim reaches back for the scraper. He’s in enough layers of old clothes to form a serviceable barrier against the cold. T-shirt, sweatshirt, hooded sweatshirt, and a crummy jean jacket with random specks of paint dribbled across it. His work gloves are great for avoiding splinters, but severely lacking in insulation.
He attacks the windshield. Unfortunately, the scraper is old, missing a few teeth on the business end. The energy he puts in isn’t coming out. The laws of physics don’t apply to him. He scrapes until he can’t feel his hands, then keeps going until there’s only ice dust left.
The car’s still an ice box inside, Jim grinds his hands together. Nathan doesn’t move. The boy might be working under the assumption that if he does the cold will break through, and he’ll have to start working all over again to accumulate warmth, or he’s asleep. It’s also possible he’s just avoiding Jim. They both know Nathan has ditched a few days of school lately. This isn’t the time to have that conversation though, it’s time to work.
Jim turns the radio on, pulls out of the lot, the final notes of his favorite song playing. They join the smattering of cars on the road driven by people in similar situations—maids, CNA’s, cooks, janitors. People getting up early to get by, or not.
Jim calculates how little he’ll make from this job. The money from it already spent, still paying down the credit cards that financed Christmas. No small bill between five kids. They only have three hours to finish before he has to head to the store and Nathan has to be at school. He’s just been accepted into the manager-in-training program at the Jewel-Osco. Has to get this promotion. Has to.
“You think the White Sox have a chance at the playoffs?”
A little startled, Jim looks at Nathan, almost forgot he was there, plus Jim had never really been a baseball fan. Didn’t even have time to watch the sport he did love.
“Yeah, that’s what I think too. Maybe.”
Silence. Nathan’s forehead wrinkles as he appears to grab a thought from the air.
“How come Shane doesn’t have to do this? He’s older. He should have to. At least sometimes.”
Jim keeps his eyes on the road. The boy deserves an answer. Shane is smart, too smart. Shane knew that if he just said no, there wasn’t much Jim could do. When he was grounded he’d sneak out, get yelled at, and repeat ad nauseam.
It’s a funny thing. Jim thought if he could handle coming up on Chicago’s South Side, making it out, graduating college, marrying a white woman against everyone’s wishes and his own common sense, then he’d be able to handle her two kids, no problem. Now, the family has grown from four to seven with Jimmy, Mason, and Megan. Seven people all crammed in a two-bedroom apartment. Two teenagers, two small children just starting school, and a toddler. Shit.
“You’re a harder worker than your brother. It’d take me forever to do this route with him,” Jim says, a smile growing. Nathan smiles back. They’re partners.
At the distribution center, Jim pulls the car into a spot in the back corner of the lot, leaves it running, and hustles to the dock. Three bay doors are wide open as vans back in. Soon they’ll all be loaded full of phone books wrapped in cellophane, bricks of four. The steady drone of men bull-shitting, gym shoes squeaking, and steel-toed boots plodding across the concrete floor is punctuated by forklifts beeping as they back up, running pallets from the front of the warehouse to the dock.
Jim finds the head guy writing things on a clipboard. He’s easy to find, not only because he’s one of the few white guys here, but he’s also the only person dressed in loafers, khakis, and one of those Bill Cosby sweaters over a polo shirt. They walk and talk back towards his office.
“I know they were talking about raising the pay for books delivered. You hear anything?”
“Nothing yet. Still twenty cents each,” the manager says.
“Better than nothing, I guess.”
He isn’t sure he believes it anymore. The manager falls into the chair behind his desk, reaches into a metal cabinet on the wall and tosses Jim the keys for van twelve.
“I’m not sure this one’s gassed up. You might need to throw a few bucks in there.”
This never happens. The vans are always full and ready to go. Jim quickly calculates the unanticipated cost and how it’ll eat into his already-meager profits.
“The hell you mean? I’m not putting any goddamn money I earn back into that van’s tank. That’s your job!”
Jim had learned everything you’d ever want to know, and not, about conflict resolution growing up. He knew when to fight, when to run, and how easy a big, angry Black man could scare people into giving him what he wanted. They’d do anything to get his ass out of their office or store.
The manager fidgets with his pen, tapping it against a clipboard, his face turning red.
“Hahahaha, just messing with you, Jim,” he says going back to the wall of keys to select another.
“Here. Best one we have.”
Snatching the keys, backing out of the office, Jim keeps his eyes on the manager. Wants to make sure he gets it in his head never to pull any shit like that again. Always had a temper that could spike to levels well-beyond what people in this comfortable suburb were ever ready for. People with so few problems they invent them.
Neck craned, Jim backs the van slowly into the dock until he hits the rubber bumpers, throws it in park, then starts to load the truck. He’s trying to make up for lost time, behind schedule because of that nonsense with the keys, plus he’s losing money every second the car is burning gas with Nathan waiting in it.
Packing the van with as many damn books as possible, he works up a good sweat. Most of the vans are two-men crews, so they can load up and make deliveries faster. Running all those books out of the van and into a business or apartment building wears you down quick. After loading up he’s finally able to get the hell out of there to start the route.
He pulls the van right next to the hatchback with the duct tape window. Inside Nathan is motionless, out cold. Jim reaches in and shakes him awake, a little harder than he meant to, still working off some of the steam from the warehouse. Sleepwalking out of the car, Nathan stumbles into the van.
Technically it’s illegal for him to work off-the-books at his age, but with his help, they come that much closer to making ends meet, and Jim has a chance to get to the store on time. The family only has each other, so rules need to be bent.
They head off feeling the added weight of hundreds of phone books with every strained acceleration. Jim can’t see behind the van, so he relies on his side mirrors. Nathan emerges from his cocoon, pulling down his hood and letting his red hair flop out. It’s shaggy, shoulder-length, and growing out unevenly in spots, the result of his last haircut from Connie.
Jim’s mostly calmed down from the run-in with the asshole at distribution. The two ride on stop by stop, marking them off on a checklist, sometimes having to consult the map, everything spread out so far, all this driving, the opposite of what Jim had grown up with. He could walk to Ebenezer Baptist where his mother sang in the choir, take the bus to school, the Red Line downtown, his bike to the courts at Washington Park off Racine. He’d never be a part of these streets in the way that he always knew where he was. Just knew. The direction he was facing, cross streets, and always where the lake was.
With this latest move to the suburbs, Jim went from being another Black man in a Black neighborhood to a Naperville celebrity. The gas station, the store, he couldn’t walk down a street without being noticed. Jim didn’t even need to be the professional basketball player the people assumed he was. He was a sight to see. Sometimes people would just stare, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. A Black guy.
Nathan seems to like when they do strip malls. With the parking lot empty, Jim drives as close to the curb of the building as he can at about a mile per hour, while both doors are wide open in the back. Nathan grabs a brick of books, jumps out, runs it to the front door, then back into the van to get another bundle. Looks more like an action-hero planting C4 explosives at an important Soviet fortress saving the United States from nuclear destruction than a boy. It’s as if, for a moment, he isn’t merely delivering phone books from crummy business to crummy business.
At the end of this Soviet stronghold is a White Hen Pantry, which regardless of the name is identical to every other convenience store in the country, except to Nathan. Jim gives him a few dollars to buy what he wants, a small payment. The rest comes in the form of food in the refrigerator and a roof over his head.
The only building open at this hour, the White Hen glows. Nathan, sweaty, walks in with confidence.
While the boy collects his rewards, Jim rifles through the van’s console and glove box looking for a pen. He’s got an idea about how they’re going to pay all the bills this month, but he’s just estimating. It’ll make him feel better to have the exact numbers written down somewhere. Feels like he’s probably missing something, a doctor’s bill maybe or a credit card they had to put some clothes on for the kids, he can’t find a pen, so these numbers fill every wrinkle in his brain, making nearly every small expenditure regretful and rendering a future past this week hard to imagine.
He looks at the clock. Nathan‘s taking too long. They have to get this van back. It’ll take fifteen minutes to get to the distribution center, five to collect his money, another fifteen to drop Nathan off at school, then thirty left to get to work. If he’s the only person opening the store, he can clock in, change clothes, wash his face, then a few sprays of a tester cologne on the company’s dime. If not, he’ll have to do it all off the clock, so he’ll lose about 10 minutes pay.
Jim opens the van door, slams it closed, takes a few quick steps towards the White Hen, then Nathan walks out drinking a Coke, carrying a small plastic bag of junk food.
“Hey, did you want me to grab you something?”
“Just get in the car. We’re late.”
Nathan is rifling through his haul. He rips open a packet of Pop Rocks and tosses them down the hatch and follows it with more Coke. The loud noise has him laughing in his chest and throat, so he doesn’t shoot the candy out of his mouth. Jim ponders what he could purchase that would make him as happy as Nathan looks, and can’t think of anything.
“Remember, your mother can’t know you had pop for breakfast.”
“Definitely,” Nathan says between gulps, crunches, and pops.
It’s a happy marriage, but the specter of money haunts every moment. Every light left on without someone in the room, every time a cabinet is opened looking for something to snack on that isn’t there, every diaper change, a field trip at school they can’t afford, a basketball team the kids’ friends are on that they aren’t, all the things the other kids’ parents can afford that they can’t.
Driving back to drop off the van, they both roll their windows down slightly. Despite the freezing weather, they’re hot, Jim’s undershirt is drenched. Passing beef jerky back and forth, its distinct smell mixing with the clean cold air, Nathan rhythmlessly taps his foot, flying high on sugar, while Jim has his first energy crash of the day, with only twelve hours before he can sleep again. Thought about having Nathan grab him a coffee at the White Hen, but is hoping someone makes a pot at the store. It’s always awful, but that doesn’t matter. Taste is a luxury that’s been worked out of him. Coffee black. Food warmish.
He drops Nathan off at the car before heading back into the warehouse that’s now a furnace, blasting the same amount of heat as when the trucks were loading up. The manager is in his office when Jim finds him. His cash is ready to go; bills faced, crisp and new. Jim counts it all in front of the dumbass sweater-wearing chump, making sure he receives every cent before leaving without giving him as much as a “thanks.”
Jogging through the parking lot, he knows every second counts. The lights are still on despite the sun finally shifting the bleak darkness of the early morning into a gray that will cover the region for another four months or so. Day takes the winter off in the Midwest.
The two drive on towards Nathan’s middle school, a little early, but Nathan can get free breakfast from the lunchroom, a fact they both know but neither says aloud. They’re now joined in traffic by the rest of the world, and can’t hide. Everyone sees the duct taped window, the boy’s crummy haircut, and the driver, stone-faced, staring ahead in search of an ever-moving endpoint.
Washington Middle School looks more like a mall or a sports complex than an educational facility. Nathan, slouching low in his seat, watches every student that walks by.
Connie told Jim about some of the trouble Nathan had been having. The kids called him “nigger-dad-Nathan.” That one stuck with Jim. In his entire life, he never thought about the effects of racism on a young white boy.
When Jim was Nathan’s age, he thought he was the ugliest kid on the planet, being one of the darkest kids in his neighborhood growing up. Bad enough when white people made fun of him, but his friends?
He wants to tell Nathan something comforting, something to let him know he understands, but he looks at the clock. He doesn’t have the time, and the fuel gauge shows the car needs gas, another five minutes or so to factor in.
He puts a hand on Nathan’s shoulder.
“If I get this promotion at work we might be able to get out to catch a few games at Comiskey this summer.”
Bulls tickets are too expensive ever since Jordan arrived and now that they finally won a championship, forget about it. He might come across free Sox tickets though, and if they eat beforehand, he can get Nathan a cap or a T-shirt at the game.
“That’d be good.”
Nathan’s anxiety briefly washes away, replaced with a grin.
“Good. I’ll see you tonight. And remember, don’t tell your mom about the pop.”
Kids are starting to arrive en masse, buses pull up, bikes swarm in, and a line of luxury sedans is forming behind them. Jim figures Nathan has to go now if he wants to sneak in without anyone seeing them together. The boy steps out of the car, closes the door, and jogs towards the main entrance.
Jim pulls off, car sputtering, and in the rearview mirror sees Nathan, back straight, arms pumping, looking stronger.
© James Stewart III
[This piece was selected by Sarah Starr Murphy. Read James’ interview]