Sometimes You Eat The Bear
By John Bolton
Bill True was in a deep sleep when his alarm clock woke him. It was the first Saturday of January, 1932. Bill had slept poorly until that last hour before the alarm went off at six. Saturday was his least favorite day. It was bill collection day. Bill was a milkman.
The job wasn’t making ends meet. His wife, Emma, was laid off from the dry cleaners. Emma was in Clinton, Iowa to help with the birth of their first grandchild. She’d gone there on a one way train ticket. Paying for her ticket home to Chicago was going to be a problem…. It seemed to Bill that he needed a miracle to pay for the ticket and to pay the rent.
Bill’s little rat terrier, Maggie, bounced in to see him and jumped on the bed. He petted and talked to her for a minute then let her outside to do her business. Then he went to the bathroom to do his own.
He let Maggie back in. With her short coat of hair, she was already cold. Bill went to the cellar and stoked coal into the furnace. He ate some cottage cheese he’d brought home from work and shared with Maggie. One thing about the dairy, there was pretty often something to bring home.
He sat heavily on a kitchen chair and picked up his tenor banjo and quietly strummed it while scheming how he could money for Emma’s train ticket and still pay the rent. Playing a bit of music helped him relax and think. He played Camp Town Races, but he was not in a doodah mood.
Selling the car was his best option to raise money. But it had been for sale a week now without a nibble.
At a quarter till seven he gave Maggie a bit more attention, then went outside and brushed snow off the model T and made sure the ‘For Sale’ sign showed. The model T had no fuel gauge. If it had a gauge, the needle would have been just above ‘walk.’ Bill walked.
First thing at the dairy, he gave Tony fresh water and a bait of grain. He broke off a quarter bale of hay and fed that to Tony too.
Bill loaded up his milk truck, took off Tony’s blanket, brushed him and hitched him up. Bill clicked his tongue and Tony leaned into the load and pulled them out of the dairy. It was a cold, three mile ride to Bill’s route.
Once they hit the route, Tony took over and worked it with almost no instruction from Bill. Tony was a great horse. And Bill was a pretty good guy. He was soft hearted and that made his job tough. If someone with kids couldn’t pay their milk bill, he did what he could to help. He couldn’t do it anymore. He was broke.
Like most people, he was a lot of things. He was a husband, a son, a father, a milkman, a musician, an animal lover. He was good at a few things, but great at nothing. He was bad at a few things too. He was not much for tinkering on the car or anything mechanical.
Bill was a bit of a philosopher. More accurately, he knew a lot of old or catchy sayings and liked to use them. His favorite was, ‘Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.’ Lately, it was the bear who was dining.
When the lights had failed on the model T, Bill made a royal mess trying to fix the wiring. It cost him double when the repair was done. To that he said, ‘Ignorance is expensive.’
He liked to say, ‘If your expectations are low, you’ll likely get what you expected.’ On the Saturday after Christmas in the height of the depression… Bill’s expectations were low.
Saturday was a late start day so the milkmen could catch more people at home and try to collect their bills. It was also payday. Bill worked on commission. The commission on unpaid bills was zero.
Tony stopped at each house and would wait patiently until Bill got back on the wagon and clicked his tongue to go again. Things went as expected. Some paid. Some did not answer the door. Some paid what they could. Some could not pay at all.
They got back to the dairy late, at nearly three, just in time to see Charley Parkhurst, the foreman slapping a horse in the face with a quirt. Bill screamed, “Charley! Stop that.”
Charley swore and kept hitting the horse. Bill bounded down off the wagon and rushed up to Charley and the poor, scared horse. He grabbed the quirt and wrestled it out of Charley’s hand. Charley screamed, “You son of a bitch!” and charged into Bill. The men wrestled and fell heavily into a pile of boards from old stalls that had been torn out and replaced.
Charley went face first into the boards. He went instantly limp. Bill tried to roll him over but was impeded by something. Finally and with high effort, he lifted Charley’s head. Attached to Charley’s head was a
short board. Dark blood leaked out from beneath the board.
Bill grabbed the board and gave a heave. He successfully removed the board and four inch nail that had gone through Charley’s right eye. There was not a whole lot of blood, But Charley Parkhurst was good and dead.
Bill was suddenly gripped by what seemed at the time to cool, clear thinking. He looked around. Nobody else was there. He went into the office and checked the log book. Two other milkmen were still not back. He went to the entry to see if they were coming. He couldn’t see them, but his eyes were drawn to a manhole cover. It was like he saw it for a reason.
He backed Tony and the wagon out the door and used them as a screen. He trotted into the shop, retrieved a crow bar and popped off the manhole cover. He grabbed Charley under the armpits, drug him out and stuffed him down the man hole and replaced the cover.
He rushed back in, grabbed a rake and wiped out any marks from dragging Charley. He plunged the bloody nail into the dirt stable floor a few times to get the blood off it and covered it up with other boards.
He made sure nobody was coming, led Tony and the wagon back inside. He went into the office and emptied every dollar and cent from the till into his lunch box.
He looked out the door again and here came Kieth Aiken a block down. As Kieth’s horse, Dobber, pulled into the stable, Bill panicked about his lunch box full of loot. But it was too late to hide it elsewhere.
Bill set to work unharnesing Tony. Kieth called out a greeting and Bill said, “Hey Kieth, nobody here but us. I wonder where Parkhurst went.”
Later after Pat Crosley came in, the three milkmen discovered the empty till. Kieth had been with the dairy the longest. He called the dairy owner, rich old Mr. Metz who said to call the police.
Soon the police came and a short time later Mr. Metz came too. Right away, the policeman suspected Charley ran off with the money. Mr. Metz said, “Charley would never do that.”
“Well,” the cop said, “There’s been a lot of robberies too. But it would be odd to take Parkhurst away.”
Bill spent a nervous hour fearing they would look into his lunch box. They never did. The milkmen turned in their own collections, kept out what was owed them and were sent home.
Bill turned in his quitting notice on Monday morning. It was still cold and Bill prayed it would stay cold enough that Charley Parkhurst would not start to stink.
That week he sold the model T and some of the furniture. The following Saturday he tearfully brushed down Tony and told him goodbye.
He took the train to Clinton, Iowa where he met Ruthie, his first grandchild and was reunited with Emma and their son and daughter in law.
On Monday, Bill went looking for work. He did not find a job that day and he went into a little music store to get warm and look around. The owner was friendly and Bill sampled a banjo, a mandolin and a new Kay guitar.
The store’s owner was broke and in trouble. He asked Bill, “Want to buy the place? Got a good little two bedroom apartment on the second floor.”
Bill had money for a down payment. He discussed things with his family and bought the place and all contents on contract at a rock bottom price.
They all moved in. With his son working, Emma teaching piano and Bill teaching anything with strings and selling something here and there… They got by. For a few years Bill worried he would get caught. But no contact from the police ever came.
Bill figured he could not change the past, but he could be a good man in the future. He did his best. Things got better in the forties and his son’s family moved out after the war. The fifties boomed and up through Bill’s death in 1962, it was a pretty good life.
Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.