Chapter 1: Gypsies
It was just another crummy place to live, a cheap room in a cheap hotel in a cheap part of town, down close to what would have been "Skid Row" if this eastern Washington town had been big enough to have a skid row. The carpets smelled musty, the wall paint stank of stale cigarette smoke; tired light bulbs in filthy overhead globes flickered dingy light and the windows passed gloomy light through their grimy panes.
If the inside of this crummy hotel was bad, the outside was worse. Dirty bricks with chipped corners, crumbling mortar and grimy concrete ledgers framed a lopsided metal sign hung over the front entrance. Faded letters proclaimed "Inland Empire Hotel."
Graydon trudged up the switch-back staircase to Door 3, their rooms. The front room overlooked the street. A smaller side window overlooked the trash-littered alley. A refrigerator with condenser coils on top, dirty with dust, stood alongside a two-burner gas range. Two overhead cabinets, a chipped counter, and a chrome-legged painted table with four wobbly chairs finished the "kitchenette" hotel apartment. A dull brown three-cushion couch slumped under the alley-side window. A faded yellow overstuffed chair, ripped along one threadbare arm, sat by the doorway into his parents' bedroom. Another door opened into a bathroom lighted by a bare bulb hanging from a twisted, cotton-covered electrical cord. A hard-water stained lavatory bowl flanked a cast iron tub. A long rust smear ran down from the dripping tub faucet. A toilet with a big chunk missing from its tank lid sat crookedly in the corner.
They'd lived in this hotel apartment since late winter. Alex Johns had finished up his high-iron riveting job on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, built to replace the fallen original. Nick-named "Galloping Gertie," the old suspension bridge lived on in spectacular news-reel footage taken when it twisted itself to destruction in a wind storm. Alex moved the family to eastern Washington to a job enlarging the Rocky Reach dam near Wenatchee. It was one of many dams turning the once free-flowing Columbia River into a long chain of stair-stepped reservoirs. This was a return for his step-father. His first big job had been the Grand Coulee Dam, built in the twilight years of the Great Depression.
His construction work ended when the country was thrust into the second half of the great world war. Private First Class Alex Johns was sent by the U.S. Army to a remote arctic atoll no one other than a few hungry fishermen and a handful of neglected native peoples had known existed: the Aleutian Islands chain. Japanese military strategists sent an invasion force to the seaward extension of "Seward's Folly" as a feint, a diversion to draw American military assets away from the greater Japanese effort in the southern Pacific.
Alex Johns operated half-frozen heavy equipment in a battalion construction unit. He escaped a sub-zero storm with frostbitten lungs, emerging from the blizzard with three survivors of his construction crew riding his bulldozer. He was discharged as a buck sergeant on VJ Day with a partial disability benefit, a purple heart, and an attitude that before God could throw another nasty test his way, he'd live purely to enjoy himself before he went in the hole. "Going in the hole" was iron-worker slang for falling to one's death.
He met a divorced red-headed volunteer at a Fort Lewis U.S.O. club dance. While his discharge papers were being cut, he'd dropped a ring on her finger, put a "biscuit in her oven" after hours on the club's pool table, and accepted her five-year-old son. He resumed civilian life with an instant family. They packed themselves into a second-hand 1941 Hudson 4-door sedan and hit the road as gypsies in the new American post-war construction boom.
Graydon Williams, tag-along stepson, enrolled in thirteen schools during six years of tramping from job to job, coast-to-coast, before they moved into the Empire Hotel. He'd been bloodied in three times that many fist-fights with bullies and suffered humiliation from teachers who disliked "construction camp trash."
He favored his biological father, a classic "nerd" if he'd been born two generations later. He inclined toward a studious introspection and especially tended to escape into himself whenever his step-father was blustering drunk.
His half-brother, Alex Jr, was five years old. He was nicknamed "cue ball" by his father who would drunkenly brag about "sinking one in the corner pocket" one fateful night in the USO club. Physically, he was a miniature of his father. In personality, he was an energetic extrovert. He'd suffered little from their lifestyle. To Alex Jr. their life was normal. It was all he knew. School and bullies, hostile teachers and frequent uprootings were not yet significant in his life. His world was mom and dad and big brother. His "real" life would begin in another week at a school where he could grow up with friends he'd know for life.
Alex Sr. was late getting home, again. It was the second Friday of the month which meant "payday" and if Alex Sr. wasn't getting drunk with his buddies at the bar, he was getting drunk playing poker in the back room. If he wasn't getting drunk and rowdy there, he was probably getting drunk at the VFW club while feeding silver dollars into the slot machines.
Dorothy Johns had about given up. Alex Sr. made very good money as a card-carrying journeyman iron-worker, but he brought home damned little of it. Years of drunken rages followed by self-pitying promises of "I'll do better, honey!" had worn her down to a silent acceptance that nothing would change. Her best hope was that it might stay tolerable, but even that hope was dimming. She sat up very late that Friday evening, alone in that dismal hotel apartment with her brooding thoughts and her two sons.
Monday brought another basalt-canyon, bake-oven day to the Columbia River desert. A copy of the "Wenatchee Daily World" newspaper lay discarded in the downstairs "two-overstuffed-chairs-and-a-phony-potted-tree" hotel lobby. Dee struggled up the stairs with a quart of milk, a fresh loaf of Wonder Bread and a small sack of oranges in her hands, and that copy of the "Daily World" under her arm. She sat down to the wobbly-legged table and began scanning the want ads, thinking maybe it was time to look for an escape route.
For rent with option to buy: 160 acre homestead with log house, $75 per month. Methow Valley. Call or write.
Inspiration flashed. Dee Johns' eyes flashed. Her lips set in a tight, grim line. The next moment she was scrabbling through her hide-away cookie tin for a fistful of change and in another minute her hurried footsteps thumped down the stairs to the pay phone in the lobby.
Alex Johns came home that night, on time, since it was Monday and payday was two Fridays back and there was no money left for drinking. He'd hit two buddies up for cash to tide him over but they were stony-broke themselves so everybody just trudged along home sober. He opened Door 3 to find packed suitcases and a battered green foot locker stacked dead center on the main room floor. Two boys, pale and wide-eyed, sat half sunken in the sagging couch. Dee Johns, her eyes hard and her mouth set in that grim line, waited at the table, the "Daily World" folded in her hand.
"The boys and I are moving to Winthrop. You can come ... if you want." And that was the entire discussion as she waved the circled ad under Alex Sr's startled eyes. "We'll need something to carry us and our luggage and I don't think that old car will do it. It's a hundred miles north. Can you find something?"
The next day Alex Sr. skipped work while he scoured the used car lots around town. For money he needed trips to the local finance company and a pawn shop. He hocked Dee's new wristwatch that he'd snagged from the top dresser drawer that morning while she was in the bath. He got a $100 loan, a $25 pawn ticket, and $50 when he sold the worn-out Hudson. He bought a 1937 Chevrolet panel truck: two bucket seats with a spindly floor-mounted gear shift lever, and a wooden-floored cargo space behind where suitcases, the foot locker, boxes of blankets, pillows, Dee's kitchenware and dishes, and two boys could be stowed.
He said the truck cost $125, but in truth he also spent $5 for two pints of Four Roses whiskey, stashed in the little floor-mounted tool box just under the driver's seat, and he'd lost $35 in an afternoon poker game at the VFW club. After the poker game and a few whiskey shots with beer chasers, he had driven the chalky-blue truck with the bat-wing fenders, fabric panel roof and wire-spoked wheels out to the construction site to pull his pay and punch the job boss in the mouth. The punch loosened two front teeth and left the boss unconscious and bleeding in the job office doorway.
"I never did like that cracker-assed sonofabitch," Alex Sr. muttered. He loaded everyone up and drove out of town, turning to follow the river highway north. He wore a smirking grin as if moving to the Methow had been his idea all along.