Chapter Seven “Rat House”


Howard had run out of money so he got a job at an auto body place nearby. He needed a new pair of work boots. Not a big deal, I thought, you go to the Army/Navy store and buy a pair. Howard, however, rushed in and bought the first pair he saw that said they were his size. He didn’t even try them on. After his first day at work he complained that they hurt.

“What hurts?” I asked.

“My feet!” he exclaimed.

“I know your feet hurt, but what part of your feet?”

“Everything about them hurts!” Howard whined, making my desire to help him dissipate. I left the house and took a walk along the muddy banks of the Duwamish. It was just outside the Rat House, not more than 150 yards away. I wondered if the rats were happy in the open sewer.

I’d had my share of shoes that hurt. Working at Boeing was nothing but a pair of shoes that hurt. Even though the job was easy, the dress code, the rules, the environment was a pain in the ass.

Howard was upset more about the fact that he wasn’t wearing his usual jungle combat boots than that he had a job. These were boots with a mesh that allowed your feet to breathe. Bill, Buzz and Howard loved these boots and wore them everywhere, even to the beach. There they were on Alki Beach, dressed in jungle boots and flannel shirts despite the ninety degree heat, while women everywhere were wearing bikinis and men swimming trunks.

He made good money working auto body, better money than I made at Boeing and I made good money there. It still wasn’t enough for him. He had to get money through inaction it seemed. Howard would take long walks, ostensibly to exercise, but he just smoked like a chimney and kept his eyes to the ground looking for lost money. He believed he would come upon a bag or a satchel full of cash. He’d walk five miles a day looking for this unexpected pay day, as if some wealthy person was walking along the Duwamish carrying a load of cash and then dropped it.

Bill and Buzz encouraged Howard in his pursuits because they would leech off of him. Cigarettes were often purchased by the carton and they would grab packs out of his stash. Food was communal and Eugene’s brothers would come by at least four times a week to grab sandwiches and beers that we had paid for. They were the worst kind of grubs and I would have said something except that they were Eugene’s family. Clark and I resented paying for their laziness. They could repair cars and do auto body work too, but they preferred to laze around all day and make big plans for some nebulous business idea they had. Perhaps they hoped Howard would find money on one of his walking expeditions and finance their latest hare-brained venture.

Howard’s were good work boots, steel-shank and toe, with oil resistant soles and good leather tops. All the idiot had to do was try them on before he bought them. Don’t just rush in and assume a size 13 is, in fact, a size 13. Now that he wore them and couldn’t return them he was stuck with a pair of shoes that hurt.

I often thought that we, as Americans, were stuck with uniforms. The gray flannel suit, the white shirt and tie, the shoes that hurt all trapped us. I called wristwatches “slave bands” because they made us slaves to time. Now that I was free to starve or suffer or just do what I wanted I saw how confining and limiting that life was. I never wanted to go back, but soon the government tit was going to stop giving milk and I would have choices to make. In the interim I had time to create, to see if One Hand Clapping would be successful, and to avoid working a straight job.

I returned to the house determined to have Howard reveal his secret inner life. I needed his acknowledgement that it was the job, and not the shoes, that hurt.

“Howard,” I started, “do you think you’d be happier if you wore your jungle boots to work?”

He didn’t look at me, instead focusing on a spot on the wall a foot above my head. His mouth started to form a word, then stopped, reverting into a frown. Then he looked directly at me and shook his head. There, I had it, Howard didn’t like working, just like the rest of us.

“Eugene says this isn’t the right job for me, the I Ching showed thunder under the mountain and that’s unfavorable for the superior man.”

I could only assume Howard thought himself the superior man. “What about astrology?” I asked, since he was actually talking to me.

“Also unfavorable.”

“What will you do for money?”

He shrugged and lit a cigarette. I went into my room, trying to synthesize what I had just learned about Howard.

Howard trudged off to work each morning and returned exhausted and beaten each evening. He took to work like a boxer takes to body blows. After two weeks he quit. The shoes sat in his trailer, unworn.


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