the soup line

Whiskey’s hard to get to know. A guy can spend his whole life trying, trying real hard. But in the end, laying there, raving in his wet brain hospital bed, with the priest shriving and the Catholic sisters tut-tutting, he doesn’t know whiskey any better than the day he met his first amber shot glass. And when he finally checks out, there isn’t enough left of him to look a friend in the eye and thank him for a hell of a good time.

Lots of guys turn to booze, sure. But Arson Willkie waited until misfortune whispered into his unguarded ear. He didn’t meet whiskey until after the trouble hit. So, I guess Arson was a drunk in the waiting. His reason and biology just itching to jump out of the window, when the moment was right. And you can’t help a guy like that. He isn’t going to take the pledge. He knows his feverish way of drinking is suicide. But if you say so, he’ll just ask why it’s taking so damn long.

The times of apple pie and stacked ham sandwiches ended when the market went bust in ’29. That’s when I first ran into Arson Willkie. Like him, most of the men who ended up in the soup line had been working in the woods, mining or fishing off the coast. Vancouver was where we landed, a stockpile of excess labour waiting for high noon.

A working man can be a fragile item, and our new found unemployment and poverty unnerved us. The women in the line had to be stoic on our behalf, as we queued up with our tin cups, meditating on the riots to come. The dismal relief camps hadn’t been thought of yet, and the conversation in line was about striking, occupying, pain and protest.

It was a rainy afternoon in February when Arson Willkie showed up in the city dump soup line, the day he finally gave in to his hunger. That’s the way it was with a lot of us, being too proud for too long for the good of our own bellies. At first, a guy would recognise things had gotten tough, but believed that hunger would never overtake him. But in 1929, hunger was catching up to everyone. The same way sleeping in a flea mansion flophouse or squatting in the dump was.

Before the crash had closed down the mills and logging operations, Arson had been a blunt, profane gang foreman, who’d rode a motorcycle from camp to camp, wearing leather jodhpurs, goggles and high laced logging boots, in full charge of himself and the men around him. Now he was at the mercy of a stony world. Maybe he always had been, but never knew it.

A soup line moves slowly; it gives a guy time to think about the ways he’s gone wrong. The march toward the tall steaming pots was nothing more than an ankle iron shuffle, while a preacher, standing on a beer crate, busted a gut over the mercy of Jesus and the grace He’d bestowed upon us, even those in league with Satan, because for a simple down payment of a forgiveness prayer, and a commitment to sin no more, Jesus would greet a man with open arms.

The trick was that a man had to find Jesus to enjoy salvation, like a drowning man might have to take time out from drowning, in the midst of his thrashing and gasping, to find his own rescuer to pull him out of the choppy grasp of the chuck. It was a strange kind of logic, only understood by those blinded by a certain sort of light. For the rest of us, it was just a Victrola playing backward.

Arson was greeted by some of the men in line, fore and aft, on his first day. But he held his head down, in the shame the new ones sometimes showed, the ones who’d thought that they were different and would survive, with a grin, what was shaping up to be the Great Depression. He took his tin cup, and rambled up to the soup pots, and the church women, with their ascetic calm and blame assigning eyes.

One of them handed him some bread and emptied her ladle into his cup.

“Say a thankful prayer to Jesus, friend,” she said.

Jesus was on furlough if He didn’t know, without a prayer, how grateful Arson was for his crummy little cup of soup and slice of sawdust bread. And he wanted to say so, but the woman’s terrible earnestness was a sword and shield, and he was unarmed.

“I prayed last night,” he said, gentler than he felt. “Before I went to sleep here in the rain, and I woke with a rat in my beadroll. Jesus sure is a puzzling fella.”

The woman blushed. Not for what Arson had said, but for how he had said it. It didn’t come out verbose, like so many other penniless censures of the obvious. And she feared him. She recognised the latent fury and subversion in his unshaven face, and saw a storm, of other men’s making, on his horizon.

“Well, that’s fine,” she muttered. “You move along, now.”

And he did.

What the church woman didn’t know was that even a man like Arson Willkie ached for passage into the mystic, same as her. But he knew it wasn’t in the cards for a bum in a squat, who didn’t belong anymore, who’d been pegged surplus by the world. He couldn’t reach the divine, riding on the same Sunday school chauvinism as her. And that night he spent his last dollar on his first bottle of hard liquor. It was the first and last bottle he ever shared. Within days, he’d taken to the streets, begging for pennies to buy more.

For a decade, I watched him drink like a true believer in the salvation of self-annihilation, during the chaos and hobo uprisings, and for another five years after that, as we fought through Europe, him drinking what he could find along the way, and detoxing painfully when there was nothing. He was hip deep in his own strange divinity, by then. By the time we were demobilised, he was ready for the soup line again, even though the Depression was over. He removed his stripes and badges, and sold his medals, then he slept in his fatigues for two years before he ended up in Shaughnessy Veterans’ Hospital, tied to a bed.

I was there the moment he died, his wild eyes gone blind and his mind tied to a rock.

“You there, Mickey?” he said, sensing my company. I stood by the bed.

“I am,” I said.

“Got a drink for your ol’ sergeant?”

A nurse in the room looked up form a chart.

“Sorry, Arson,” I said. “There’s a no hooch order in effect.”

“That never stopped us.”

I looked at the nurse, and said, “I think the order sticks in this vicinity.”

“Do you think I’ll see God?” he asked.

“Sure,” I lied. I wasn’t religious. But in the war, I’d lied to a lot of dying men asking after God. “God’ll be there,” I said, “behind the bar with a bottle and a jigger.”

“That’s a fine picture, Mickey.”

His hand was cold but strong when I took it. Another thing I recalled from comforting the dying at war.

“I guess there’s nothing after this, for a fella like me,” he said.

“Maybe.”

“Nothingness can be a fine thing, though,” he said. “Quiet as a forest after a rain.” His grip on my hand weakened.

Arson Willkie died in the ghostly isolation of the insane, his hasty spirit blowing town like a guy dodging a loan shark, riding his motorcycle on a highway somewhere toward his own Heaven, before God knew a damn thing about it. A couple of days later, I poured a swallow onto his grave, and left the rest of the bottle at his tombstone. It was February, and it was raining.

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