The wrong side of the tracks. That’s where he was from. Run-down properties, running from the rent man, and his dad running in and out of jobs.
It was the alcohol that caused it. That, and too many kids.
Bennett was the oldest of eight. Now, at seventeen, he was driving his boss’s car, a car he wouldn’t get back until tomorrow, to fish his girlfriend’s father out of the bar. Oh, the irony.
Victoria had run to fetch Bennett from the filling station where he worked, her blonde fly-aways falling from her ponytail, eyes swimming with worry. She knew Bennett would fix whatever bothered her—would do anything for her. Right then he was working with the hope of saving enough money to go to college—to be the college man Victoria’s mother hoped for.
And he was making it, too. And high school basketball—that was going so well a coach from Wayne State was coming to catch his next game. He would be in the graduating class of 1950—first class of the new decade. Victoria believed Bennett would make it in this world—rise above poverty and move to the proper side of town. For her. She was right.
Only all she wanted now was for him to go into the bar and get her father out. Her mom apparently wanted to “just die” when she found out where he was. Dinner was burned on the stove and Victoria’s mom had locked herself in her room. So Victoria came for Bennett.
Victoria’s father, Alan Lamere, wasn’t the drinking type. Lots of guys who worked in the auto plants stopped off for a beer after work. Some went in the middle of the week; some were just the Friday types. Bennett’s dad was the always type.
The father of the perfect family seemed to be having a fall from grace, and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks was heading out to rescue him. Bennett knew—Mrs. Lamere wasn’t so much worried that Mr. Lamere was suddenly becoming a raging alcoholic; she was simply worried about being judged. Worried about people seeing their new Buick that she had bragged so much about, their “second car” that they built a garage for, sitting in the dirt lot at Duffy’s. She would hate for people to think that Mr. Lamere was just a regular guy.
And she hated Bennett, hated his father and his family’s constant problems. Mostly, she hated that he was dating her daughter. He didn’t know if he could ever prove himself to her, but maybe this expedition would put him in her good graces. If he could just get Mr. Lamere out of the bar and back home before too many people saw their precious car—before too many people could judge her right back for all of her better-than-thou notions.
Duffy’s was on the south side of town. Once Bennett pulled into the lot, he looked around for the new Buick. There it sat, under the oak tree, dead leaves still floating in the winter breezes now stuck to the windshield. He parked nearby, locked the car, and thought about which bus he’d have to catch to get this car back in the morning.
He pulled open the tavern door and gave his eyes a chance to adjust to the dim lighting and smoky air.
The bartender gave a wave. “What can I do for you?”
Bennett approached. “I’m looking for someone.” Two men were sitting up at the bar, their work uniforms untucked, one man rubbing his five o’clock shadow, both staring blankly as they sipped their beers. Beyond the right side of the bar were a few dark booths. In one a small group sat playing cards. In the other was a sight Bennett expected to see. His dad was slumped, gray head drooping like a broken toy, his hand still wrapped loosely around the nearly empty beer mug on the table even as his eyes were closed.
“You look familiar. Do I know your dad or something?”
Bennett looked back to the bartender. “No.”
“Oh, I thought maybe I knew you from one of the guys.” The bartender gestured around at different groups of men.
Bennett shook his head—no.
“Wait, have I seen you in the paper? You a basketball player?”
Without thinking, Bennett smiled.
“Sure you are. You’re the leading scorer in your conference. There was just a nice little article about you.”
The bartender continued rambling about how he follows high school sports, especially basketball. Bennett was in a hurry now to find Mr. Lamere and get out. The establishment had the shape of an L and wrapped around the left side. In the back he could see a group of men, standing and talking, loud laughter echoing through the room.
“Wait a minute, didn’t Carson over there say the kid in the paper was his son? Hey, Carson. Head’s up, man.” The bartender chucked his rag over to the booth where Mr. Carson was nodding off. It landed sloppily on his head then slid down his shoulder. The two men at the end of the bar laughed as the rag drooped off Mr. Carson’s shoulder and fell to the floor.
“No, sorry, sir.” Bennett said. “Wrong family.”
“I figured the old man was lying. Damn drunk. I gotta get him outta here.”
Bennett looked to his dad, oblivious to the rag that just smacked him and to the fact that he was being mocked. Oblivious to the fact that his son stood just feet away.
To the bartender he said, “I’m actually looking for Alan Lamere. He here?”
“Oh, sure. He’s in the back.”
“Thanks.” Bennett waved to the bartender and tucked his hands into his pockets, trying to look cool as he walked around to where the group was drinking. As he moved closer, he caught snatches of their rancor, could hear they were blowing off steam.
“That guy, he’s so tight he squeaks when he walks. You don’t want to work with that son-of-a-bitch.” The men threw their heads back, guffawing at their own jokes.
Mr. Lamere, a thin man with a curved back from years of hard work, slammed his beer mug on the bar, “Damn straight I don’t. If I go work with those nosebleeds upstairs, I’d be as tight as them.”
A smaller guy in a greasy down jacket spoke. “Hell yeah, boss. It’ll be better on the production floor, with us.”
“Somebody just go to my house and … and …” Mr. Lamere began laughing so hard he could hardly get the words out, “tell that warden of a wife of mine that I’m not going to ever bring home the big bucks.” The men laughed uproariously; as if this was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. Bennett knew that Mr. Lamere lost his patience sometimes with his wife’s pretentions and social climbing, but he’d never heard him speak of anyone this way.
“I’m living in Alcatraz with that woman.” The raucous laughter continued to build. “You see this?” He turned clumsily to put his back to the guys, then reached a finger over his shoulder to point. “See those tread marks on my back? She used the very tires we make, on the vehicle I bought her, to ride rough-shod right over the back of me.” He was like a stand-up comedian. A man Bennett had never seen—or heard—before. If it wasn’t so out of character, he may have joined in the laughter.
As Mr. Lamere turned back around to face his friends who were bent double, he caught sight of Bennett. Like a practiced expert, Bennett slipped into the routine that he knew so well—his ‘how to handle a drunk’ routine. “Hey, Mr. Lamere!” Big smile. “Nice to see you!”
“Bennett …” Mr. Lamere’s mouth slacked a little as he seemed to be trying to take in the sight of him, so out of context. He reached a hand to his head to smooth his graying black hair.
“I was running some errands for my mom. Saw your car out front.”
Mr. Lamere straightened upright. “Just stopped off after work here to treat these boys to a few beers. I work with the best, ya know?”
“That’s what I hear.” Bennett knew his inflection needed to sound agreeable. Dealing with a drunk can be a lot like fishing. You can’t let the fish know you want to catch him; you have to be careful about how you dangle the bait in the water. Bennett took his time.
The men were smiling, so Bennett reached out a hand. “Nice to meet ya. I’m Bennett. Mr. Lamere is, well,” not sure if he should share their connection, Bennett hesitated, “about the best man I ever met.”
The men took turns pumping Bennett’s hand. “Great man right here,” the greasy-jacket guy said. “Not that any of those fools down at the plant know it.”
“I appreciate that, fellas,” Mr. Lamere said as he reached for another swallow. Tilting back his mug, he discovered it was empty. “Well, lookie there. How did that happen?” He was answered with more laughter.
Bennett subtly waved off the bartender. “I’ll bet you’re hungry, Mr. Lamere. Would you mind getting a burger with me? I got a few things I been needing to talk to you about.” The bait was lowered.
Mr. Lamere wobbled forward a little and squinted his eyes to look closer at Bennett. He seemed to be deciding if this was a good option. His eyes softened and he reached a hand up to place on Bennett’s shoulder. “Been meaning to talk to you about a few things too. Let’s get that burger.”
The fish was on the hook. Fumbling, Mr. Lamere put on his coat.
They said goodbye to the fellas who patted Mr. Lamere on the back, “Chin up, man.” “Screw those bastards.” Other words of solidarity followed them to the door.
Just as they reached the exit, Bennett could not stop himself from taking a look back at the booth where his father sat, the booth that likely held him night after night. Mr. Carson appeared exactly as he had a few minutes before, only someone had picked up the dishrag. Bennett pushed the door open and guided Mr. Lamere out.
“I see your Buick is parked over here. I’d sure like to drive her—she’s a beauty!” Bennett hoped Mr. Lamere wouldn’t put up a fight as his dad often did.
“Yeah, okay. I hear what you’re saying.” He gave over the keys. “Give it to me straight, Bennett. How bad is it?” The walk in the cold seemed to have a sobering effect.
“It’s bad, sir. I guess Mrs. Lamere’s been crying. Locked herself in her room.” Bennett started the Buick and was pulling out from the parking lot.
“Man can’t even go out with the guys and have a beer.”
Bennett nodded, playing along.
“That ball and chain. She’s had me by the throat too long. The house has to be perfect, the lawn must look just so for the neighbors. Have to keep the cars shined up. And the money!” What had seemed to be a shtick for laughter in the bar was brewing into an anger that was real. Mr. Lamere’s voice got tighter and louder as he went. “There’s never enough money. Now she thinks she should have a fur coat for winter because that woman Beverly Schneider got one. Does she understand what Beverly’s husband does for a living?”
Bennett continued to nod as he drove, but kept silent. That usually worked best with his dad.
“Her husband made Vice President for Buick last year.” He stretched out the word vice in drunken exaggeration. “Yes, sir, Vice President. But can she understand that? No. She just asks why I’m not Vice President for the tire company. Unbelievable.”
“Sir, I’m sure she means well.” Sticking to his role as Savior, he tried to keep the peace.
“That woman don’t mean well. She may have once, but I hardly remember that girl.”
“You can’t mean that. It’s the booze talking.” Bennett was rarely honest with his father when he was drunk and wasn’t sure what had inspired him to be so straightforward now.
“The booze? Is that what you think is going on here? This is the truth—God’s honest. Now where is this burger place you wanted to go to?”
“You know, sir, I’ve been rethinking that. We ought to get you home quick.”
“Get home. For her? Forget that.”
“Well, sir, I made your daughter a promise that I would bring you home. And I sure hate to see Mrs. Lamere upset.”
“Well aren’t you sweet? Defending her. Remember I said I was needing to talk to you? Here’s how it is, Bennett. My wife will never…and I mean never,” he put up both hands for emphasis, “let you marry our daughter.”
Bennett winced. It had never been said out loud.
“And that ain’t the booze talking either. She says it all the time. She will practically lay down her life before she lets a Carson marry her baby girl.”
“Sir, I know she doesn’t approve of my father.” His mind scrambled to defend. “But you’ve been like a second father to me…I’m sure you’ve told her, we’re good.” Bennett braked, almost too late, as a stoplight turned red.
“It’s true, we’ve been like family. You’ve been a great friend, a role model even, to our son. But marry Victoria? There’s no way.”
“You can’t say that. Me and Victoria, we’ve been together since we were in diapers.” Bennett struggled for clarity. “You have let us be together all our lives. How can you say this now?”
Mr. Lamere’s slicked back hair flopped down onto his forehead as he shook his head.
“There’s kids at school who are steady, but they’re just fooling around. You know that Victoria and I…we’re different.”
A car honked behind them as the light turned green. Bennett tried to focus on the accelerator and began driving again.
“You’re different alright,” Mr. Lamere argued. “And it’s going to stay that way. Different. As in, not a whole lot in common.”
Bennett couldn’t allow him to spout these alcohol-soaked lies. “We’ve got our whole childhood in common.”
“Maybe, but not your future. You kids aren’t thinking the same thing.”
“Of course we are. We talk about it all the time.” Bennett tried to swallow over an angry lump hardening in his throat.
“Bennett, be real. Are you going to college? I’m not talking in a few years after you work hard, and I know you will work hard. I’m talking this fall, will you, honestly, be packing it up and heading to college?”
“Well, sir, I don’t know for sure right now. I’ve got a good chance…if some things fall into place.”
“Exactly. Which is another way of saying you’re not going. Now I respect you, Bennett. You understand hard work. Hell, you’re more like me than my own son is…and that is the problem.”
“You’re not making any sense. Of course I’m just like you. Isn’t that what you’d want for your daughter?”
Mr. Lamere wagged his finger. “Not good enough. Not good enough for my wife, and she’s got a strong hold on that wide-eyed daughter of mine.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“This young love? Enjoy it for the next few months, but you both have some growing up to do.” Mr. Lamere dropped his head, looking down to his lap, “It’s not going to last.”
“I knew Mrs. Lamere was saying things about me.” Bennett shook his head as if it would erase the conversation. “I knew she was saying things about my dad. But you too? I can’t believe this.”
“Listen to me, ’cause I don’t know if I’m ever going to get the chance to say this to you again without my daughter around.” He reached across to place his hand on Bennett’s shoulder. “This isn’t easy for me because despite my wife I’ve loved you like a son. When we just left that bar, we walked past your dad. Past your own father.” He rubbed his calloused hands over his face and released a defeated sigh. “I’m a hair’s breadth—one whisper away—from being just like your dad, Bennett. There’s got to be better for you. Better for Victoria. This is about both of you. Look at me.” He paused and shook his fists. “Pull over the damn car and look at me.”
Bennett did as he was told, easing the car off to the side as they approached the next red light.
“You’re looking in the mirror. If not me, then him, back there at the bar.” He leaned in so close the stench of the beer on his breath caused Bennett’s stomach to flip. “If you stay in this town, if you don’t get away from that family that weighs around your neck like an anchor, you will not advance enough to take care of anyone. You will end up in a job that’s not good enough, with your resources spread too thin, with a wife who’s never happy, looking for a bar where you can get away for what is supposed to be a little while but becomes much more.”
Bennett fought the tears that threatened, felt his body begin to tremble. Nothing had prepared him for such words from the man he most admired.
“I see you going fishing so there’s meat in your freezer. I see you down at the station pumping gas like you’re saving money for college when everyone knows that money is gone as soon as your dad doesn’t make it to work on a Monday. It’s a trap, Bennett. And as much as I respect you, I have to agree with my wife, only because I want more for you, and,” he pursed his lips together then dropped his shoulders as if giving in to the truth, “if you love Victoria, you’ll want more for her too.”
Through gritted teeth Bennett tried to calm his voice. “It will be different for me.” He gripped the steering wheel. “I’m not my father.”
“Then you’re me.” He jerked both thumbs back to his chest. “Does this look much better? And here’s something else I know. Your father is going to get fired Monday. Heard Human Resources talking about it when they called me in to tell me I didn’t get my promotion. They gave it to some punk fresh out of college. Your dad’s been coming in late and dragging from the drinking. I want you to know—I didn’t report him. Probably why I didn’t get my promotion today—they said I’m too soft. But your dad’s production is down. I couldn’t hide that.”
Both men settled back into their seat, nothing left to say. Bennett stared numbly down at the steering wheel while Mr. Lamere looked straight ahead through the windshield.
Finally, Victoria’s father took a deep breath, seeming to fortify himself. “You’re coming up on graduation. With your dad unemployed, there’s no way you’re leaving your mother with all those brothers and sisters of yours in the near future. Like I said, it’s a trap.”
Bennett’s heart hammered in his chest. He couldn’t decide if he wanted to cry or hit someone. He trusted Mr. Lamere. He knew Mr. Lamere understood him in a way Mrs. Lamere did not. He had seen him as an ally in this battle to win a future with Victoria and had never doubted it.
Today, he had dropped everything at work and sped to bring this man home. To impress Victoria. To win over her mother. To make Mr. Lamere grateful—to be seen as his son.
Bennett swiped at his eyes with the sleeves of his Varsity jacket, the wool rough on his face. He needed to get away from this man. He needed to think.
He checked the lane to see if he could pull back out onto the road and waited as a car came up alongside them, stopping at the light. He would have to sit until the light turned green to allow this car to go before he could pull away from the curb.
Not willing to look at Mr. Lamere, Bennett noticed the car beside him. It was a police cruiser. Maybe out of habit, maybe as a distraction from the tension, Bennett twisted a bit to look in the back of the police car. He gulped air as he made eye contact with his father. Bennett looked through the glass, across the space between the two vehicles and into his father’s tired eyes, the slack wrinkles of his face pooling at his jowls. Mr. Carson lifted his hand in a wave. He was broken, that was true. But Bennett felt a reinforcement then. He felt the same unconditional blood running through his veins. He lifted his own hand and waved back. His father had no idea what Bennett was doing or that he had been with him in the bar just moments before. But Bennett knew that if his dad had known, he would forgive him.
As the light turned green, Bennett eased the car away from the curb and traveled behind the cruiser. Both cars bounced over the railroad tracks that separated the north and south side of town. After a few blocks, the cruiser turned toward the city jail where Bennett would rescue his father in the morning.