The View From the Top of the World


by Tom Dwyer

On a cold, stark, December morning, Joey Drum walked out of the Frankfort Correctional Facilities in northeast Philadelphia. He watched as they closed the main gate behind him, the large iron door slamming shut with a loud bang. He lit a cigarette, and looked around at the world he hadn't seen in seven years. Now, at nineteen years of age, he was starting his life over, or was he just starting his life? Everything he knew he learned in jail. Everything that mattered was back inside. He studied the cold, snow-covered brick buildings that dotted the blue-collar neighborhood surrounding the jail. He walked towards the bus stop on the corner, but, before he got more then a few feet, a white Cadillac turned the corner and pulled up next to him. Inside, a stocky man in his early 50's with thick, white hair stared at Joey for a minute through the frost-covered, half-opened window and then said, " Sorry I'm late, we had some trouble on a job." Joey threw his one bag into the backseat of the car, climbed into the front, and looked over at the man. As the car moved towards center Philadelphia, the thought ran through Joey's mind that the same man driving him now, was the man who drove him to jail some seven years ago.

"What's going on at the job, Dad, somebody get thrown off a roof or something?"

Bill Drum, looked over at his only son. Joey's hair was as red as his had once been. He stood over six feet, and his body had become hardened by the weight lifting he had done in the joint. His eyes held a hardness that caused the older man to wonder if he was doing the right thing letting him come live with him and his new wife.

Joey imagined his new life with mixed emotions. He was glad to be out of the joint and free. But freedom to someone who has been locked up most of his life, was as scary as going to jail for the first time. The two men sat quietly as the car maneuvered through the traffic. During the seven years Joey spent in jail, his father had come to visit him when he could. But, the first few years Bill Drum was with the Merchant Marines, and not around much. Sometimes, Joey would get a postcard from an exotic port where his father had docked, but most time he didn't hear from him for months on end. When his father left the Merchant Marines he was hired as a union delegate for the Roofer's Union in Philadelphia. Then, once a month like clockwork, the old man would arrive at the jail, cigarettes and magazines in hand. And for an hour they would talk about how Joey was doing in the joint, and how when he got out he had a job waiting for him with the Roofers. They never spoke about the night the house burnt down. Neither cared to go there.

When they arrived at the rowhouse where Bill Drum lived, Joey stared up at the three-story house as he climbed out of the car. He was as excited as a boy, for a moment, thinking of how he would have his own room. A room where there wouldn't be a hundred other criminals talking and screaming in their sleep. Rosie, a pretty women in her forties, met them at the door. She eyed Joey once over, smiled with all the sincerity she could fake through her fear, and then tried to help him with his suitcase. Joey tightened the grip on the small suitcase, and Rosie moved away from him towards the kitchen to make some breakfast. She had been married to Bill now for three years, and wasn't keen on letting a convict come into their house. They followed her into the kitchen, the two men taking seats at the kitchen table. Joey looked around the room and saw nothing that reminded him of his past, of his short childhood. But then again, this was not his house. That house was gone, as was his mother. This house belonged to his father, and his new wife. Rosie set a cup of coffee in front of Joey. He could smell the fresh soap on her from her morning shower. He so badly wanted to know a woman, any woman. He knew nothing of sex except what he learned in jail. And that, lay deep in his mind like so many other things. She looked at him for a second, and then poured Bill and herself a cup. The three of them faced each other, sitting, sipping their coffee, three people thrown together like a puzzle with pieces missing. Outside, new snow slapped against the kitchen window. Joey looked at the wall clock and saw it was only ten o'clock. He could see his friends back in the joint, moving through the place at that slow pace that everyone knew. It was a speed that said there was no reason to rush, 'cause there was no place to get to. He drank his coffee and stared at his father. The years of sailing ship and the drink had taken a toll on him. He no longer drank, but the sorrow in his life was still in his eyes, something that was permanent.

There was an uneasiness that moved through the kitchen. They finished their breakfast with few words, and then Bill Drum showed Joey his room. Rosie cleared the morning dishes, wondering to herself if this boy, who was now a man, had been cured of his problem while in jail. She hoped he would find his own place fast. He would be working with his father, that was good, she thought. She was a Christian; she did believe in second chances. Upstairs, above her head, she could hear the two men talking. She wondered if they had ever spoken about that night, when Joey was a boy?

That evening, Rosie and Bill went out to a dinner that the Roofer's Union was holding at a local VFW Post. They asked Joey to come, but he was tired and said he would rather stay home and get ready for his first day of work tomorrow. At first, Bill did not want him to stay in the house alone, and was about to say something, but realized that the boy needed to be trusted. That he had done his time, and now he needed to be treated like everyone else.

Joey heard the car leave. He lay on his bed and stared up at the ceiling. He thought about going to work in the morning. He would be working with his father on a large roofing job that had to be finished by spring. He was starting at twenty bucks an hour as the kettle man. His job was to keep the kettle hot that was on the ground, and to load buckets with hot tar from the kettle, that would go to the roof. He felt lucky getting the job. He knew his father was a powerful man in the union, he had paid his dues during the 'union wars' a few years back: Sites built by non-union labor burned to the ground mysteriously, and more then a few men were thrown off job sites and roofs if they didn't toe the union line. His father was respected and feared. Joey lit a cigarette and watched the match burn in his hands. He was hypnotized by the startling colors that burned brightest as the flame died. As the flame faded to black he saw the face of his mother. He had not thought about her for a very long time. He tried to hold that picture in his mind as the match burnt his fingers. He needed to see her face.

By seven the next morning, father and son had arrived at the job site, a three-story building that covered an entire city block. A crew of twenty-five men stood around a warming fire burning from a trashcan. They drank their coffees and tried not to think of the cold day's work ahead. Joey and Bill walked towards the crew all leaning towards the warmth of the fire. Bill slapped a few men on the back and introduced his son around. Joey could see that he was accepted immediately. There would be no testing of him, or complaining about him getting the kettle job. He was Bill Drum's kid who just got out of the joint. Bill put his arm around Joey's shoulder and told him he would pick him up in the afternoon when the day's work was finished. He then turned and climbed back into his white Caddy and sped off towards another work site. Joey stood in this group of strangers. Many who probably had done time themselves. He was ready for his new life. He started to understand his freedom.

By ten that morning, Joey had learned how to light the kettle, add the tar, and then bucket the hot, molten material, pulling the ropes that sent the tar to the roof. There was a magical, rhythmical feel to the job he was doing. He would stand close to the open kettle, feeling the heat of the flame warm his face to the point of tears. He could hear the men on the roof talking and singing along to a rock & roll song on the radio. He felt safe and warm as the tar burnt his hands. Before he knew it the day was over. His father pulled the Caddy up to the site, and motioned for him to come to the car. He walked over and saw his father counting a roll of bills. He looked up from what he was doing.

"You better go in the shed and get yourself cleaned up. Get that tar off of you. Here, I brought you some new clothes."

Joey took the new shirt and pants and went inside the shed. He stripped down to his underpants and washed his face and hands. He felt the tar slip from his hands and face. He closed his eyes, scrubbing his face hard, when a memory ran through his head. It was an image of flames consuming something, maybe him. The fire seemed to be screaming, almost as if a voice was calling for help inside of the fire. He kept his eyes closed and rubbed his face harder. He could feel the tar scratching his face. He looked harder and harder into the flames…what was there?

Joey and his father drove to a small restaurant in center city. Joey could not get over what it felt like to be free. To see all of the moving people around him, going wherever they wanted. They stopped in a small, Italian place owned by an ex-roofer, who had made some money and invested it wisely. Joey ordered a steak, while his father had fish. They ate silently, just enjoying the food. Bill finally spoke.

"So, how was your first day of work, son?"

Joey put his fork down, and looked at his father. He couldn't remember his father calling him 'son' like that before. His father was either drunk, or busy shipping out, and son was never on his father's lips.

"It was good. It really was. I didn't even notice the cold, and the guys are okay."

His father smiled at him, and took a bite of his food.

"Tomorrow I'm going to start you on a cleaner job. You'll drive around with me and help me make sure the workers show up, and are doing the job. You'll like it. Most days nothing happens."

Joey was wise enough to know that he was going along with his father as muscle. Not that anybody would mess or bother with his father…but it was just one more reason not to. Joey was sure there would be money to be picked up. He was almost going to miss the warm fire of the kettle. He could still feel the burn on his face from where he rubbed the tar off. What was that image he saw when he closed his eyes? Freedom was sweet, Joey thought to himself.

The next morning, and for weeks after, Joey and his dad drove from site to site to pay the men, make sure the jobs were running smoothly, and slowly, to get to know one another. One Friday afternoon, the weather was unusually mild. They decided to drop into the site where Joey had first started as the kettle man. The job was almost finished, and the men were proud of their work. As they pulled the car up to the site, they saw two groups of men looking as if they were about to fight .They jumped out of the car, approached the group, Bill Drum touching the inside of his coat pocket as if he were checking for something.

"What's the problem here?" Bill asked, walking into the middle of the men. A tall, mean-looking Mexican walked towards Bill.

"We think your union should hire us. You are making money in our neighborhood, but giving nothing back."

Bill knew these guys. They traveled from site to site trying to strong-arm their way into jobs. Most of them just wanted to be paid to do nothing.

"You want a job with our union, show up at the union hall six in the morning. Sometimes we need extra men. That's how you get into our union."

"That's not good enough," the Mexican said, moving a step closer to Bill.

Joey Drum felt heat move through him. Behind his eyes a small room surrounded him, and, in his hands fire shot out from his fingers in all directions. There was very little movement from Joey's shoulder, just a straight jab, the power coming from his legs. The punch hit the Mexican in his left temple. For a moment the tall man seemed to be staring out towards the sky, searching for something, then he fell at the feet of Bill Drum. Joey stood next to his father and glared back at the other six men who came with the Mexican. They slowly lifted the man from the ground, then carried him away towards a car. Bill Drum put his hand on his son's shoulder and squeezed it. Words were not necessary.

That evening at dinner, nothing was said about the incident. Bill preferred to keep his business dealings from Rosie. Joey picked at his food, not able to forget about hitting the man earlier. It wasn't like he had never fought before. He had learned to take care of himself in jail. He had become the baddest guy on his cellblock, even though he was younger then most of the guys. But tonight, his emotions were all over the place. He felt Rosie staring at him.

"Joey, what's the matter, you don't like the dinner? Go ahead, eat something will you?"

Joey felt anger move through him. The kind of anger he felt when he hit the Mexican.

"Don't fuck'n tell me what to do, you're not my mother."

Silence hit the table like a cold wind.

"Joey, don't talk that way to my wife. You're not in the joint anymore, apologize to her."

Joey studied his father's eyes trying to understand what his father was feeling. He saw a man who had never really been there for him, but now was trying to make everything right.

"She's not my mother; she can't tell me what to do. My mother is dead, Dad."

Rosie cleared a few plates from the table.

"Remember, Dad? Remember what happened that day? I don't, I can't remember, do you know that?"

Bill saw the anger in his son. He wasn't scared of many men, but at that moment he feared Joey.

"It was an accident what happened that day. The courts were wrong. You didn't mean to do anything wrong."

Joey pushed up from the table and moved towards Rosie, who was washing the same plate over and over. Joey stood close to her. He could almost feel the fear coming out of her.

"Did he tell you that I set the house on fire when I was a kid?"

Rosie wanted to reach out and hold him, telling him things were alright…but she couldn't move towards him.

"Did he tell you that I was trying to get back at him because he would hit me when he was drunk, and then go out to sea and forget I even existed?"

Bill had known that one day this would happen, that the two of them would need to come to terms with what happened that night of the fire.

"Joey, it's over. Now's the time to move on and do something with your life. I'm sorry about the past."

Bill heard the words come out of his mouth. Why did it take so long say them?"

"Sorry, you're sorry? Tell mom that."

Joey pushed past his father, shoving him against a wall. He ran out the front door of the house and kept running. He ran through the city streets, and felt like he could run off the face of the earth. He ran until he turned a corner and saw the roofing job he had worked on, the site where he learned to light the kettle, the site where he had hit the man. He walked around the building. The kettle and tools were still there. Joey placed an ax on his shoulder, then climbed the fire escape to the new roof. He gazed out over the city, and felt tears rolling down his face. He stepped to the center of the roof, and with the ax, started ripping a hole in the new structure. He pulled off the jacket that had been given to him in jail and stuffed it in the hole. He sank to his knees, pulling a lighter from his pant's pocket. He lit the jacket, watching flames jump from the hole. They glowed in the night air like the fire he felt inside him. Like the fire he saw in his dreams, like the fire in his mother's tears. He did not hear his father's footsteps behind him. It was only when he heard his father say, "That won't bring her back," that he turned.

"Nothing will bring her back, Dad! Nothing!"

Bill Drum moved towards his son and the small fire that was getting larger by the second.

"If we don't put that out now, we won't be able to put it out."

"Why didn't you stay with us? If you had stayed with us that day, instead of running away, things would have been fine."

Bill moved closer to his son, as the fire on the roof spread.

"Because I was a coward, son. Don't you do the same now. Let's put that fire out, that's what she would want."

Joey felt his life moving around him, going backward and forward. He felt frozen in place, yet, totally free.

"Come and help me put it out, Dad. Come and help me."

His father joined him. To someone from afar, it might have looked like two men dancing in flames, some ancient ritual that only they understood.

After the fire was out they moved to the edge of the roof and sat, not saying anything. The early spring air calming them.

"Do you think she forgives me, Dad?" Joey asked.

"I know she does, She loved you, Joey."

"Dad, when you left that day on your ship, where did you go?"

'To the top of Greenland. We were running supplies to a government outpost."

"How far north was it, Dad?"

"It was the top of the world, son. On a clear night you could see the curve of the earth in every direction."

"Like tonight, Dad? Is this like the view from the top of the world?"

Bill Drum reached his hand over and gently touched his son's hand.

"It is tonight, son. It is tonight."

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The View From the Top of the World, 2 January 1998