SKID ROW
A Novel

2
      Jew Bill Ainít Dead, Heís Just Drunk
     
     
            Shorty and I saw the whole thing from across the street. The two of us had just put in eight long hours in the blazing heat of a Memphis July working on a tar and gravel roof. Shorty was angling toward the curb, parking the sputtering pick-up in front of Dad and Uncle Louisís sheet metal shop when he saw Jew Bill fall out of his chair.
            Shorty, a shaky driver at his best of times yelled, ďLook over yonder JoJo! Jew Bill done kilt hisself. I knew whiskey was gonna get that ole man one of these days.Ē
            I was only fourteen, just starting high school at the Brothers but I knew a drunk when I saw one, and my first thought was hell, Jew Bill ainít dead, heís just passed out.
            Shorty sat there jittery, hand-holding the steering wheel as I jumped out of the old Dodge and ran across the street to where Jew Bill was reclining in a half prone position snoring up a storm. A few bums were clustered around him in a circle shuffling their feet, staring in curiosity, wondering if there might be a sip left in the whiskey bottle protruding from Jew Billís back pocket.
            A tinner by the name of Fingers came out of the place, grabbed the half conscious Bill by the scruff of the neck, and stiff-walked him into the sheet metal shop, the one owned by Billís brother Abe Chlem, a short, bald-headed little fellow.
            As he walked Jew Bill into the shop, Fingers turned a dirty, crooked index appendage at me and said, ďGet your ass back across the street to your old manís shop, boy. You ainít got no business here.Ē
            I was the one who generally helped Bill when he was in this shape and being nosey as hell to boot, all I was trying to do was get a look into that abyss the Jewish brothers called a tinsmith shop but standing in the sunlight, my vision penetrated only five feet or so into the shadows.
            Following Fingers and Bill at a safe distance, I stepped into the shop where the darkness enveloped me and as I did, I felt as if I were walking back in time. The shop was only about thirty feet wide with tongue and groove hardwood flooring, a ceiling so high it disappeared into obscurity, and lights that hung from extension cords with bulbs surrounded by shop-made metal reflectors.
            The shop was so narrow that when a tinner needed to turn a length of gutter or flashing, his fellow worker learned to watch carefully as the metal dodged the wall, the light, and his head. I backed out while Fingers helped Bill into a chair then I ran across the street where Shorty stood.
            ďHe ainít hurt none Shorty. Heís just drunk again,Ē I said.
            Since all the commotion was over, Shorty took the pint of whiskey he had hidden under the driverís seat and trotted into Dadís shop where the crew stood waiting impatiently for their afternoon nip. I followed Shorty into the concrete block building with the name Werner Sheet Metal Works splashed in bright red letters across the dirt-splattered plate glass window.
            At the death of my grandfather who had owned the shop next door to Chlemís, Dad and Uncle Louis had built a new building, an inexpensive structure directly across the street from Chlem Sheet Metal Company, a simple building with no frills and a small office just big enough for a desk and two chairs. The sheetrock walls were painted a vomit-colored lime green selected by my sister, an aspiring artist who insisted the correct name for the color to be chartreuse. Next to the plate glass window was an overhead door that opened into a shop filled with brakes for bending metal, benches for the men to work on, and racks to hold the steel. The whole affair was as unpretentious as the men who owned the business and the men who worked for them. Since the building was completed just as the Depression years of the 1930s hit us like a sledgehammer, there seemed to be small chance that the company could survive. However, through hardheaded German stubbornness, lots of work, and the luck of a huge hailstorm, my dad and uncle kept the place afloat.