When Nimishillen Creek in Canton, Ohio overflowed its banks in the flood of 1959 it swamped Luke Wainwright’s crappy apartment. He couldn’t afford much of a new place, not after the divorce, not after he’d dropped a four-jawed chuck from a lathe on his foot at Timken Roller Bearing. The accident had cost him five toes and his job.
He ended up on the seedy side of town, but how seedy he didn’t realize until he stopped by Harry’s, a bar near his new apartment, on a Thursday in early September. He was scouting for a good place to do the serious drinking that was rapidly filling the vacuum left by the lack of a job.
The tavern felt like home, packed with white steelworkers. He took a seat at the bar, ordered and paid for a mug of Iron City and a shot of bar whiskey, dumped the shot in the beer and took a long swallow. The geezer next to him, slumped over the bar like he was praying to the Lucky Strike burning in his hand, turned his head and harrumphed when Luke burped.
“You’re new,” he said, lifted his draft and took a sip. “I’m Buddy.” He reached down the bar for a quick handshake. “Where you work?”
Luke introduced himself, explained about the accident that accounted for his severe limp and his poverty.
“Forty year with Republic Steel,” the old man replied, pointing a thumb at himself. “What do I have to show for it? A crappy room in a boarding house and enough money to drink nickel beer.”
“Try living on workman’s comp and paying alimony,” Luke replied.
“One block east, one block south.”
“In that duplex across from the whorehouse?”
“Whorehouse?” The bartender cruised by, and Luke pointed to his beer and his new friend’s, slid a buck across the bar.
The old man nodded his appreciation. “Yeah. It’s under the mob’s protection. Rumor is they specialize in underage girls. Nobody in the neighborhood is happy about it, but who wants to stick their neck out?”
“Jesus,” Luke said. “That’s disgusting.” He thought about his old man, the beatings. Perhaps his childhood could have been worse after all. “Why don’t the cops shut it down?”
“Why do you think?” Buddy said. The bartender set the fresh mugs in front of them. He picked his up and tapped it against Luke’s.
Jimmy Alo woke with the usual question on his mind; why didn’t he just quit the milkman job? He made about the same money setting up the occasional car bomb for the Youngstown mob, and for that he could sleep in.
After a coffee, though, he came to accept, as he did every morning, that the job was in his blood. His dad and his father before him had been milkmen, and he’d long expected to die the way his old man had, a heart attack with his arms full of milk bottles.
Thanks to refrigerators and supermarkets, though, he probably wouldn’t even have the job in five years. He’d lost ten customers just that year.
He donned his white uniform, brushing the seat of the trousers where some grime had accumulated, and left the apartment as he did every day at 3:30 a.m.
Luke’s brother had died in the Battle of Inchon. He’d been a photographer in civilian life, and Luke, who’d inherited his estate, had pawned all of his gear except his camera to fund his ex-wife Lana’s shopping sprees. He was holding the Leica M3 with a 280mm telephoto lens back against financial disaster, which he was now hard up against.
During his walk home from Harry’s, though, he thought of a way he could make more money with the camera than a pawn broker would offer. The only downside would be some guilt over using the misfortune of the girls across the street for his own enrichment. But if they were under the mob’s protection, with the cops blinded by bribes, what could he do about it anyway?
Due to the pain from his mangled foot, Luke didn’t sleep well so he had no trouble sitting up that night watching the front door of the large Victorian house across the street. He’d noted it before, a decade overdue for paint with gutters dangling to the ground and a front porch that listed severely toward the street. He hadn’t paid attention to who came and went before. Now he was interested.