2 Double Shift: A Short Blues Story by Bonni McKeown
Marcus crammed the shorted paycheck into his pocket as Friday’s five o’clock whistle sent the Midwest Barrel workers out into the street. By the gate stood Lenny, inhaling a cigarette. Maybe the weasel had been right. “What’d I do to deserve this?”
“What you did,” drawled Lenny, “was be born poor and black. “Midwest Barrel looks for people that fit our description.”
“Why’s that?” Marcus asked. Lenny watched him pull his jacket sleeves over his long, dark brown arms. Lenny’s skin was much lighter. To the white bosses, they were all Negroes.
“They think we still be slaves for ‘em.” Lenny blew out a puff of smoke through a gap in his front teeth.
“This place got white and brown slaves too,” said Marcus. “Midwest Barrel be dogging everybody. Wish I could paint a stencil on those barrels, say like Fred Hampton: ‘All Power to All People.’”
Lenny shrugged. “I got my pay for the double shift. Who knows what the rest got. Fred Hampton, he dead. Black Panthers, they gone. Here, have a cigarette.”
No, no. Now Marcus heard a man’s voice buzz in his head. His father, now? Lenny didn’t react; he apparently heard nothing.
The voice persisted. Son! No! Don’t start! I couldn’t stop smoking the damn things once I started.
Marcus barely remembered his father—only the glint of sunshine in the tall man’s brown eyes at the Clarksdale, Mississippi train station. Marcus was little, only three. His father picked him up and they watched the big steam engine chuff to a stop. Marcus Jr. and his mother boarded the Illinois Central train to Chicago. They waved at the window as his father’s figure shrank to a distant speck. One week later, Marcus Sr, died in a fire at a juke joint where he played guitar.
GloryAnna Manning found no other man. Marcus Jr. grew up with no father. Now he saw an advantage in the lack of earthly parents: he could do what he wanted.
“Let’s get out of here,” he said to Lenny as they walked down the street smoking their cigarettes. It stayed hot, but a lake breeze blew some of the sweat and grime off them.
“You gonna keep working at Midwest?” Lenny asked.
“Well, you still is, right?”
“I only fill in certain weeks when they need a substitute. I work the barrels for pocket change, so my mother stays off my back. Make my real money at night.”
“What are you, a pimp?” Marcus glanced at him sideways.
“Aw, I ain’t that fancy. Don’t strut around with no cape like Supa-fly. No cigar in my mouth. No crazy women to be bothered with. I just make the money and put it in my pocket.” He flipped his cigarette butt toward the gutter.
“Well, what do you do?”
“Come tonight and see. I’ll make sure you get paid, double on the hour what you make here. I always find people here wanting to make more money,” Len grinned. “Meet me at 9 o’clock.” He whispered an address in Marcus’s ear. “Not gonna write nothing down. You gotta remember it.”
The #20 Madison Street bus two blocks from Midwest Barrel took Marcus down the main drag of the West Side of Chicago, past all the places where he grew up. Rows of stores, burned in the 1968 riots when Martin Luther King was killed, still sat awaiting repair. A few tiny Black owned shops peeked out from behind the rubble and life went on. Teenagers flowed out of the same ice cream place where he and his buddies met after school. Beside it, the shoeshine shop where he worked even before his teens. On the next block, the storefront church where his auntie, now gone back south, had dragged him in his third-grade Sunday suit. The preacher ranted on forever, but the music grooved. He remembered watching the drummer twirl his sticks and stomp on the pedal to make the bass drum go boom. He knew right then he was meant to be a drummer.
The bus passed Big Duke’s record store and the lounge next door where blues bands played til daylight. He opened the bus window to catch the drumbeats, guitar and bass notes floating out the door.
At the old yellow brick single-room hotel, Marcus gave the desk clerk the month’s rent--all the money from his shorted paycheck. Unlocking his room, he brushed past the drum set his mother had given him. It was gathering dust between his narrow bed and the tiny kitchen table. Sad and unmoved to pick up the sticks, he made crunchy sandwiches with the last saltine crackers and the final sardines. His cash was down to $1.67. Dead tired, he’d have to go out again and work this extra job.
Don’t do it, his mother’s spirit warned.
“I need the money,” Marcus answered, moving his lips, making no sound. “Like you would say, Mama, when you went to work, I need to make a dollar. Let me just work this one night. Then I’ll have enough money to eat and decide what to do next.”
His snare drum began to rattle. A glint of light bounced off the ride cymbal and he heard it shimmer. His dad’s voice: Play your drums, son. Step your foot in any of those little clubs on Madison or Lake Street. Right now, tonight. They’ll let you play and give you a little something to get you by. After a while you be making a living.
Marcus shrugged. “Yeah, right, dad,” he said aloud.
I know those fellas, Marcus Sr.’s voice insisted. We played together down south. Tell ‘em you my son. They give you a chance right away.
Marcus looked at the drum set, shuddering at how clunky he sounded the last time he tried to practice. “I ain’t good enough.”
But you got the music in you, son. It’s your gift from God. Play your drums. That’s how you get better.
“I ain’t really played since mama died and I moved here.” Sudden tears overflowed down Marcus’s cheeks. For weeks he had been pouring emotional mortar into the gaping hole in his heart that could not be fixed.
I know you miss your mama. But she fine. She here with me. Last week we went to a club called Soul Heaven. Marcus Sr.’s chuckle was as warm as life.
We love you son. His mother’s melodious alto voice. But we can’t come back, we can just advise. That’s the rules here.
You gotta own up to your decisions, his dad said. Remember: Keep your eyes on the prize. Your life.
“Mama? Dad?” The voices stopped, the ride cymbal shimmered again and then fell silent.
No good. Marcus Jr. was still alone. He still needed money. Substantial money.