Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 20

A Day in Bollinger

The next week, conscious of the need to be a better man to impress Barbara more deeply, Howie joined the YMCA. This particular Y, an old brick building blackened by a hundred years of steam locomotive smoke, was rather scruffy. The ceiling of the exercise room in the basement was falling down in patches, and the mats on the floor, ragged and spilling their stuffing, had gone from white to gray. Indeed, some were too dark to be counted as gray.

None of this kept Howie from adding weight on his presses and curls. He also moved up to heavier dumb-bells. After doing the first few sets, he went to the drinking fountain, and let the water slosh around his mouth. He was followed by an older man named Sy, perhaps Bollinger's most incongruous resident. A bow-legged old Italian lawyer with a sunken chest, he managed, against all probability, to lift weights. He would sometimes come in and announce,

"Today, I'm pumping everything up."

On this day, he began telling the bystanders of a recent encounter with a prostitute.

"I said to her, 'Do you have a special rate for senior citizens?' She said, 'Fuck no, it takes longer.' So I went and got a pizza instead."

It rather amused Howie to realize how much his social milieu had changed. The Y membership included some respectable citizens, including Sturgis Caldwell, Sam Herz, and, contrary to appearances, Sy. But there were a good many others, particularly the younger ones, who were closer to the late Wellington Sykes than to Sturgis. It was really no accident that there was pinned to the weight room bulletin board a letter from a former member now in a federal penitentiary. It began with the sentence,

"Hi you guys, here I am in the hot-ass federal pen."

It went on to complain about the weight lifting equipment at this institution, with the aside that several of the gentlemen at the Y would find it easy to win the penitentiary weight-lifting championship. The writer signed off, not quite expressing the hope that his friends at the Y would soon join him. There was laughter at the bulletin board, and not a few predictions as to the identity of the next man to make the trip to the Big House. Howie, standing by, hoped that he wouldn't have to prosecute any of his new freiends.

Howie next put on his bag gloves and began to hit the heavy bag. Despite taunts from Sy that Joe Louis wouldn't be safe even in retirement, he thought he was hitting it quite well when a voice behind him said,

"Hands higher, don't be off balance if you miss. Get more shoulder turn."

Howie attempted to follow instructions, knowing that the voice belonged to Riley, the man who had applied the last dart to Sykes.

Howie had immediately recognized Riley at the Y, but the other had shown no sign of recognizing him. They had never been formally introduced, but, after seeing Riley hit the bag, Howie asked for instruction. In the course of sporadic conversations, Howie had come to realize that Riley, quite apart from his occasional services for Vic Olafson, was, in his own right, a truly violent man. Once, in an unusually expansive mood, Riley said,

"I used to play basketball upstairs, but I got in so many fights I decided to stop. I hate confrontations. People are assholes."

Howie had done nothing more than nod. He hadn't been the least inclined to point out that most people can play basketball without getting into fights.

On the other hand, Howie found that nothing he was naturally inclined to say or do set Riley off. Indeed, he had even told him that he was trying to build himself up to deal with challenges that might come up in connection with his girl friend. Riley had replied,

"You got a nice girl, some son-of-a bitch'll try to take her away. You gotta pound him, get in close, hook and uppercut, butt with your head if you have to."

Even now, Riley called,

"Move in, keep that left pumping."

Riley's view was that long range shots mostly missed and invited counter-punches. Riley himself, Howie remembered, had cut up Sykes from a distance. But that wasn't for amateurs. For Howie he recommeded pure violence and aggression, a flurry of blows that would overwhelm someone who probably didn't know how to fight. In consequence, Howie moved in, his head almost touching the bag, and, without withdrawing his hands far, he threw punches with his shoulders and legs. When he staggered back exhausted, Riley nodded his approval. The latter then proceeded to systematically knock the stuffings out of the bag, even the chains holding it up clanking and jouncing as they threatened to tear the fixture out of the ceiling.

Sam Herz had followed Howie's example of grabbing a sandwich and going to the Y instead of the Courthouse Cafe. When they found themselves alone in the locker room, Howie brought the other up to date on his relations with Barbara. When told of his marriage proposal, Sam reacted,

"Howie, you have to learn not to say anything that comes into your head."

"I know. It's just that I've done that with her all along. It was okay until now."

"For one thing, a young lady like that would always have to wonder if a man is interested in her because of her money."

"God! That never occurred to me. But she's so attractive, she must know that it's not the money that would draw a man."

"Does she know that she's beautiful? Not all beautiful women do."

"I think she does realize it."

"Well, then, she might think that you're only interested in her looks. Besides, the combination of looks and money produces a kind of glamour that's hard to resist."

"Yes, she has wondered out loud whether I'd be interested if she were just ordinary looking."

"Would you?"

"Certainly. She's very bright and interesting. Anyone would want to be with her."

"Would you still have proposed marriage?"

"Maybe not. She'd make a great friend."

"For the time being, it might be better to treat her that way."

"Yeah, until I get to be a better man. Then, she might want me."

Herz laughed and replied,

"This frantic exercising may be great for your health, Howie, but it's not going to make one bit of difference to her."

"Well, I guess not. But I have to attack weakness on all fronts."

Howie felt strong as he left the Y, but, finding it impossible to relax, he took a walk through Bollinger. His noon lunch hour had already expired, but almost no one who worked in the city offices made it back before two. Without really intending it, he ended up walking down the street that contained Abbott's Adult Book Store. Abbott had been given thirty days to close, and, evidently not pinning his hopes on an appeal, he was now trying to sell off his stock in a half- price sale. This sale was being impeded by picketers who wanted the store to close immediately.

Howie was hardly anxious to have any further involvement with the matter, but, since he was on the other side of the street, he thought it safe to continue along. When he was nearly opposite the single-story store wedged between higher non-descript buildings, he was considerably surprised to see Ken Seitz among the picketers. Ken had a large red-lettered sign which, because of the angle, Howie couldn't make out. Not surprisingly, there was a photographer taking pictures of Ken with Abbott's store front in the background.

Hoping not to be noticed, Howie accelerated slightly, but not enough, he hoped, to make him conspicuous. The trouble was that Ken was a very alert man, always on the lookout for even the slightest advantage. There was a loud shout and a beckoning to cross the street. Howie couldn't have refused without being rude.

It was also characteristic of Ken not to push an advantage too hard, and he didn't force on Howie a sign to hold. Instead, the small crowd was given to understand that Howie was the hero in the drama, in fact, the fighting prosecutor who had led the charge. Howie, embarrassed, went into his "Shucks, folks, twaren't nuthin" mode.

It was a city ordnance that the curtains in places like bars and adult book stores had to be five feet above sidewalk level. This screened out children, and the assumption seemed to be that, as one exceeded five feet, it was not unduly injurious to have a peek or two at the real world. Howie could have observed proceedings in the Yacht Club over a six foot curtain, but the five foot one had enabled Vic Olafson to get his timing right. In the present instance, the be- spectacled head of Mike Abbott was to be seen over the curtain as he looked unabashadly out.

Howie had been too busy with his arguments in court to take in Abbott fully. He now realized that the man believed in what he was doing! Had Sturgis convinced him that he was defending the ramparts of free speech? No, it didn't seem to be that. Abbott had the look of a markedly intellectual frog placed, under duress, in a hostile environment. It occurred to Howie that he might have been a professor of English who hadn't gotten tenure. He probably was more intelligent and better educated than the picketers outside, and he looked to be fully aware of that fact.

The picketers varied greatly. There were the obvious church women, some of them downtrodden fanatics. There were also some middle-class ladies who seemed uncomfortable at appearing in what was probably their first demonstration. These latter offered Howie congratulations, while still implying with their educated voices that they weren't like the others.

Among the few men, there was one, Ben Statler, whom Howie recognized. A town crazy who wandered the streets, he had a surprisingly respectable look. It was said that the Statler sisters took care of him. Indeed, no one would have noticed anything wrong, but for his habit of predicting eternal damnation for all and sundry. As a religious crazy, it wasn't so surprising that he had turned up at the demonstration

The only problem was that Ben, pointing at Mike Abbott, uttered sentences such as,

"You fucker, God will rip your balls off with his bare hands."

Ben didn't speak loudly, and the ladies all pretended not to hear. Ken gave Howie a pained look, but continued to circulate. Howie, amused, chalked up a few logic points for Ben. It was certainly part of Bollinger religion that God could intervene casually in human affairs, as if he had a quasi-human body, rather like Superman or Batman. Why, then, shouldn't the hand of God be able to deal with such as Mike Abbott?

Unfortunately, despite his logical expertise, Ben was getting louder. Ken moved back, put his arm around Ben's shoulders and said quietly,

"Ben, you need to clean up your language."

It didn't work. Ben insisted that no language was sufficiently strong in this case and struggled free. When he picked up a stone and looked as it he might throw it through the glass at Abbott, Howie grabbed his throwing arm firmly and said,

"The mayor needs to hear your message, Ben. I'm on my way to city hall, and I'll take you to his office."

Ben wasn't big or strong, and he did seem surprised at Howie's speech. It wasn't too hard to convey him along in the guise of friendship. Since Ben muttered almost incoherently, Howie was able to hold up his end of the conversation by talking loudly about the weather.

Two blocks further on, Ken caught up with them and said,

"Thanks, Howie, I can manage now."

Turning the confused Ben over to Ken, Howie strode briskly back to the courthouse. He wondered whether this minor triumph was the sort of thing which would impress Barbara.

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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