“He’s a plasterer,” we used to joke, “unless he’s plastered.” The subject of our youthful mirth was a guy named “Joe.” I’m not sure I ever knew his other name. Some called him “wino Joe.” He was a fixture in the area around our little town. He had a two-wheeled wagon, a tall thing that we often saw mounded up with bottles. Joe scoured the highways for empty bottles. The two-cent deposits added up, he said, and often enough for his needs, I guess, he was able to buy a bottle of wine with the proceeds.
I think the stuff might have been called “Golden Pheasant.” It came in flat-sided pint bottles, and I recall seeing Joe hold a full one up to the rising sun one morning. “Breakfast,” he said appreciatively.
There were times, however, when the supply of empty pop bottles was simply insufficient. In those times Joe fell back on plastering. My dad said he was an artisan. I never knew exactly what he meant, but one night late Joe came to do a job and he was so drunk my dad had to hold him on the ladder. The house didn’t have sheetrock then, but rather real plaster with thin, hand-hewn strips of lath behind the uneven, discolored plaster. Sometimes when big chunks fell off we were able to extract long strips of yellowed newsprint with dates from the early 1870s.
When Joe finished the job my dad took out a ten-dollar bill and Joe said, “Nope. That is the ten-dollar bill you loaned me last week. I’m payin’ you back.” My dad shrugged and folded the bill into his pocket.
The next morning Joe was back. He had a sheepish look and he said, “I’d kinda like to look at the job I did last night, I might have had a skinful.”
My dad ushered him inside and they checked the work. I stood in the back of the room and watched. Joe finally turned around, He had an embarrassed smile, “Yeh, that don’t look half bad. Yuh know that ten-dollar bill? I wonder if I could borrow that again?”
My dad reached in his pocket, the same exact place he had stuck the money the night before and handed it over.
“Now, yuh know I’m gonna pay that back,” Joe said, I’m good for it. It’s just—I’m feelin’ kinda thirsty. I’ll be fine once I walk up there to the liquor store.”
The store was on the edge of town, probably eight or ten miles from our little house on the outskirts, clear on the other side.
“Well, I’m goin’ that way, Joe, why don’t you ride along?”
Joe was a free spirit before that term had much meaning to us, he went where he wanted and when he wanted, and nobody knew much about how he survived.
He had a way of just appearing. Sometimes we would have a bit of work for him, sometimes just some leftovers. My mother drew the line at alcohol, “That's for him to manage” she said, “I’m not going to try to run his life, but I’m not going to help him kill himself either.”
It was a frigid Christmas Eve when Joe appeared at our house. The snow was just a frozen skiff on the long grass, but it was bitter cold, and the wind was blowing so that it would cut you like a knife.
I went out to look for Santa—my little brother still believed—but instead I saw Joe sitting on a porch swing in our front yard. He was dressed in bib overalls and heavy work shoes. He wore an old barn jacket that someone had donated. The sleeves hung down way past his hands and he seemed shrunken inside his clothes.
“Hey, Joe, ain’t you cold out here?” I called out to him from the front door. “Mom, Joe’s out here in the yard.”
She came bustling out, all five feet two of her, her cheeks were flushed from the oven and she was wiping her hands on her apron. “Joe, get in here, you’ll freeze.”
“Oh, no missus,” he croaked, “I’m just fine, I’m used to it. I just needed to set for a spell.”
My mother turned to me and whispered, “it’s ‘sit,’ you remember that don’t you?”
“Go out there and get him; don’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” She hustled me out the door. “Frank,” I heard her say back into the room, “Joe’s coming in for dinner, do we have anything for a present?”
It was our custom to exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, and then “Santa” would leave stuff for the kids to find in the morning. I was about nine and I had given up on the Santa phenomenon probably three years before, but the swag was good, and we never really discussed it. My little brother was only five, and he was still a serious Santa devotee.
Joe stepped in, blinking in the light. He was stone-cold sober. I’m not sure whether I had seen that before. “I sure don’t want to intrude, Missus,” he said to my mother. “I got my dinner,” he pulled a flat can of sardines from the side pocket of the barn jacket, “I don’t want to be no trouble, I’d drink a glass of milk, I guess.”
“Let me have that,” she smiled reaching out for the can. “I’ll be fixing a plate.”
“I just usually eat ‘em out of the can,” he said, pulling out a huge safety pin, “I got my fork right here.”
“Not tonight,” she said. “Go in there and have a seat. Hang your coat here and go in there by the fire.”
My little brother, an obstreperous foe of soap and water said, in his squeaky little voice, “Mom! Don’t he have to wash his hands?
“Doesn’t,” my mom said to him, “it’s ‘doesn’t,’ now you get out there and sit by the tree, and I don’t want to hear any packages shaking.”
My dad walked through the door from the bedrooms in the back of the house. He had a red, wool shirt in his hands. It was brand new, but the first time he had put it on he had shivered and taken it right back off. “Feels like a damned army shirt,” I remembered him saying.
He was back from the war for almost five years by then, but he was still prone to remember things I didn’t quite understand. I was crazy for guns in those days, in fact I was hoping against hope that “Santa” was finally going to bring me the black Red Ryder carbine. I had asked, in vain, for the wooden stock model last year, but this year the all-black model with the plastic stock beckoned to me from the store window of Western Auto with such ferocity that I thought I would swoon whenever we drove through town.
“We’ll see,” he said when I pestered him for the nine-hundredth time about the BB-gun, “it's good to know about guns. I sure hope you never need to use one.” My mom had made a little frame for his medals from the war. He put it away in a drawer, but I loved to get it out and look at the little purple one with George Washington on it, and the red, white and blue one with the star.
“You think this is okay?” He held the shirt out, neatly folded.
“That’s fine, I think he needs it.”
When Joe had doffed the barn jacket I could see that his elbows stuck through the blue denim shirt he was wearing. I saw my mother notice it too.
“I’ll get this wrapped.”
“I’m going in to sit with Joe,” my dad said, “you think it would be okay to have a highball?”
His drink was Jim Beam and Seven-up, but his indulgence was rare. I asked for a taste once, and he said, “When you’re forty.”
“You’re not even forty, Dad,”
“Yeah,” he smiled at me, “but I had a hard life.”
She looked concerned, “You think that’s a good idea?”
“I’ll make it weak,” he said.
To everyone’s surprise, Joe turned down the offer. He nursed his glass of milk and rocked silently by the fire. “It’s been a long time since I had Christmas,” he said.
I saw him looking at his reflection in the glass-fronted bookcase that sat across from him. It was the pride of our family, made of walnut and transported by wagon from Illinois just after the Civil War. I learned to read before my dad came home from overseas, and now one whole shelf was for my very own books.
Joe didn’t cut a very prepossessing figure. He was short, maybe five foot six or so, and skinny to the point of emaciation. His face was covered by perpetual stubble, not quite a beard, and two long grooves ran down from his nose to bracket his downturned lips. He wasn’t an ugly man, just sad.
“Mister,” he said, “I wouldn’t mind to clean up a little bit. I’ve got my scissors in my bag.”
“Sure,” my dad said, “the bathroom’s back there and there’s an extra safety razor in the drawer, you’re welcome to take it.”
My little brother, ensconced next to the tree and fairly vibrating with what he called “Christmas fever,” piped up. “Yuh better take a long time with those hands, or she’ll be after yuh.”
When Joe came back the transformation was amazing. I had never seen him clean-shaven, and his short, wiry gray hair was slicked back with water. He might have been almost as young as my dad.
He sat again, almost glowing, across from the book stack. He rocked in the warmth and I could see a look in his eyes that said he was far away.
When dinner was served Joe’s sardines were nowhere to be seen. He made short work of three big slices of a hame that was covered with canned pineapple and dotted with red cherries. My mom’s escalloped potatoes disappeared into him in enormous quantities.
When the dishes were cleared away and we all sat in a food stupor, it came time for our family gift exchange. My mother dictated that Joe’s present came first. Tears ran down those grooves in his cheeks and he insisted on going back to one of the bedrooms to put on the new red shirt. My little brother squirmed like a soul in torment at the delay.
When Joe came back he brought his bedraggled old carpetbag and placed it at his feet. “I just can’t thank you enough.”
Our exchange went fast after that. A bag of oranges, some walnuts, a P-47 fighter that threw sparks from its landing gear when my brother raced it over the carpet. For me, a compact, heavy little parcel that held six tubes of BB’s. “But I don’t have a BB gun,” I said, disingenuously, “maybe Santa?”
My dad smiled his secret smile and said, “Depends on whether you were good, I guess.”
Joe leaned forward and opened his bag. “Santy stopped me on the road out there when I was walkin,’ he had a couple more things for you boys.”
For my brother, a tiny penknife with a picture of some building on the shiny plastic handle, and for me a thick, mysterious book, the thickest book I had ever had for my own. On the front there was a mysterious symbol in a circle. The cover was so grimy it was hard to make out, all sharp angles.
“It’s called Mein Kampf,” Joe said.
I’ve been able to read since I was about four, but when I opened it I couldn’t read a single word. My face gave me away.
“Oh, it’s okay, Sonny,” Joe said, “it’s in German. Maybe I’ll teach you to read it in the summer.
I asked, “How did you get this book?” I saw my dad subtly shaking his head.
“Oh, I used to live in Germany,” Joe said, “it was back before the war.”
“Were you a soldier?” My little brother piped up. He had a ragtag little collection of lead soldiers from a variety of wars and he understood that association.
“Nope, I was s student, and then later, for a while I was kind of a teacher. That little knife, that has a picture of the Schloss in Heidelburg—that’s a castle—and Heidelburg is where I studied. I never got to be a soldier,” he said.
“Why not?” My brother was relentless. He hounded my dad to tell stories about the army—a quest that was always defeated—and he was not going to let this quarry escape.
“Well,” I was in Paris when the Germans invaded France and I came home. When I tried to sign up the next year they said my lungs were no good. I had TB when I was little. I wanted to go, Mister,” he looked at my dad.
“You didn’t miss anything, Joe.”
It was late and I could see my mother trying to conjure up the sleeping arrangements. “I think you boys will sleep together and—”
“Oh, no, Missus, I have to get on down the road. I’ve got a place in town, and I best get there before the snow gets any worse. I hear we might get it tonight late.”
There was nothing for it. He insisted. He pulled an old grimy baseball cap down over his head, wrapped a scarf around it, and then shrugged on the barn jacket. “I feel warmer already with this red shirt. You’ll be able to see me coming from a mile away.”
The snow was drifted the next morning, and we went to early mass in my dad’s big pickup truck, all snuggled together in the cab with the heater on full blast. It was too dark to see much beyond the yellow glow of headlights.
On the way home we were following the ruts when my dad said, “Whoa, there went somebody, looks like it happened last night.” He wrenched the wheel to gets us back in the roadway and stopped to see down into the ditch. A blue car was down there, upside down. It had fetched up against a fence and something was penned in the barbed wire.
“Boys, don’t look,” my mom said, but it was too late, I could see the red wool shirt, the sleeve hung limp and it was flapping in the sharp breeze.