In the 1950s, in the Ontario tobacco-growing community of Smoke, a young boy on the verge of manhood is scarred forever. A night out with his buddies, too much booze and a lit cigarette, and Buster McFiddie's life will never be the same. Through the process of healing, one man's voice speaks to him, softly, to ease his pain, spinning yarns of The Purple Gang, the notorious Detroit mob. It is the voice of John Gray, the town doctor, and soon it's clear that telling these tales means as much to Doc as hearing them means to Buster.
In an era of conformity, a disfigured boy tries to move his life forward, and an old man grapples desperately with his past: the convergence of two lives on the cusp will change each of them, and the small-town world that binds them, in ways they could not have imagined.
Elizabeth Ruth's second novel is a tour de force: a potent, richly inventive story of identity and transformation, of reconciliation between the way you are seen, and the truth of who you really are.
The boy jolts awake in his bed. He finds the bright flicker of fire and the blur of searing heat. Orange and blue flames surround his mattress like expatriates at a flag burning. He is the flag. He screams but his voice is as distant as a fox caught in one of his father's traps out in the backwoods. It's him sounding desperate, helpless. His mother's hands wave frantically about. “Oh my God, Thomas! Do something!” His father covers him with his own nightshirt to trap the flames, lifts him from hell, runs him down the hall, drops his burning body into the white enamel bathtub. Water, water, to sizzle, fizzle and stub him out. Extinguish him. But he is too burnt already, for water. The pungent smell of singeing hair and skin is overwhelming, the stink of near-death—a halfway place—and then the agony of consciousness. Am I dying? the boy thinks. His father is sharp and in charge: “Goddamnit, Isabel. Get Hank. Put out that fire. NOW!” Fear clogs his father's throat, making him gag while he speaks. “Son? Can you hear me? I'm taking you to the hospital.” Then his father, usually bold and unflinching, vomits beside the bathtub. This is when the boy knows; this is when he understands that he won't survive. All sound and smell rescinds, voices fade and light is replaced by a blanket of merciful darkness.
He opens one eye to foggy vision and a shadow moves about the room. The smell is of bleached sheets. Stale chemicals. Burnt skin and hair. An acidic paste coats his dry mouth. His face is an open wound. He moans and a familiar voice interrupts. A man's voice, but not deep.
“Hang on, son. You're going to be all right.”
The body leans closer. Rubbing alcohol, stale blood. Aftershave.
No. Someone else.
The touch is cool. It lingers on his arm. A soft, reassuring hand.
The doctor feels the fine bristles of the brush graze his palm. He sees that water in the basin at the side of the bed is peppered with bits of flesh. Skin floats to the surface and gathers around his wrist. “I know it hurts,” he says. “But the morphine should help. Your swelling has come down and I need to prevent infection. Just hold still now.” The boy parts his charcoal lips. His cheeks are red and glossy, leaking fluid. One side of his face is covered in blisters. “Looks like there might be some skin loss.”
“Leave me alone.”
The doctor leans back, pushes his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “I'm afraid I can't do that. Listen, I want you to try and forget what I'm doing and just follow my voice.” The boy nods gingerly. “All right then. Did I ever tell you about the Purple Gang? Not a very fearsome name for a gang, I know. But they made up for it with their strong-arm tactics.” The doctor works fast to clean the wounds, moves his hands quickly over the boy's forehead and rests his fingers along the hairline. The skin here is white and when he touches it the boy doesn't react. Nerves have been damaged. “It all started at the Old Bishop School,” he says. “A trade school in Michigan. There were four Bernstein brothers. None of them studied much, though folks said that Abe made good grades. He was the brains behind most of their operations. At first they committed petty crimes—terrorized the Jewish quarter where they lived by stealing from shops and rolling drunks. But unlike most youngsters, those boys grew bolder with time. They blackmailed locals and extorted protection money from friends of their father. They fought with rival gangs and before long they had other young toughs working for them and a junkyard in Albion, the Riverside Iron and Metal Company—a front for their headquarters. Abe, the oldest, was the quiet one of the lot, kept to himself most of the time. He just stood back counting the money while Joe, Raymond and Izzy were busy breaking bones.”
“Don't.” The boy flinches, shrinks from reach when the doctor adds pressure to his scrubbing and peeling.
“The world had gone topsy-turvy, son. When the prohibition went into effect, let me think... January of 1920 if memory serves, it was a chance to earn big money. Gambling, handbooks—that's horse-betting parlours—and of course, the booze. A good man found himself going against his conscience to keep food on the table. A bad man didn't look so bad any more, and women—women behaved as they pretty much pleased—drank, smoked, acted free and loose. But it was those border-town brats, the Purple Gang, who controlled us all; ran booze across the river from Canada and sold it as far away as Chicago and Philadelphia. Rum-running. They were famous for hijacking; interrupting a load and leaving a string of dead bodies in its wake. Took good-quality Canadian whiskey and cut it, sometimes three ways. Imagine. Operations were set up all over the city, went on round the clock supplying the blind pigs—illegal saloons. Those brothers built themselves up from penniless Eastern Europeans to swashbuckling leaders of a hard-line American mob. Oh, they were fearless.”
“Fearless.” The boy shifts in bed, weighs his head down into the pillow.
“That's right.” The doctor drops his shoulders, sees that with no escape the boy has finally opened himself to these words, is hanging on to them—clinging to them as if they are strong ropes that might pull him to safety. He speaks more confidently now. “Wasn't long before the whole country knew them by name and no underworld operation went on without the Purple Gang taking kickbacks. I tell you, they tore through the streets of Detroit like bandits answering to no one. I still remember the first time I saw them in the flesh.” He holds his hands away from the boy's face. “You ever seen a fight?”
The boy tries to shake his head but can't. His green eyes water involuntarily.
“No. Well until you've seen a real fight up close you don't know how much pain a man can really withstand. Now listen 'cause this is something I've never told anyone. It was a Sunday like today. A hot and sticky night at the Motor City gym in an industrial area out on the Lower East Side. The place didn't look like much from the street, just a deserted old building waiting on condemnation. But the second you stepped through that shady entrance, paid the girl with the tight top and red lips for your ticket and walked down the hall into the main room, you were hit with more colour and sound than you'd ever seen or heard before. Picture it: a big rectangular space, an arena is what it was, and around the grey cement walls, close up to the ceiling, flags from all the countries of this world. Stars and Stripes, of course. Any other place you can think of too. And down to the bottom, at eye level, there were hand-printed signs for the fighters when they were training, in case they might want to give up. Quit. ‘Wasted talent is the oldest story in boxing,’ said one. ‘Second place is the first loser,’ said another.
“The crowd that night was mostly common folks blowing off steam in their workaday clothes, dirty boots, caps on their heads. A few in suits. I don't know where their wives were but something told me the girls they had giggling on their knees were standing in for the evening.” The doctor winks and then, feeling awkward, clears his throat. “There were young fellas too, the Bernstein brothers like I mentioned, and others more your age. I didn't know the place had been bought by the Purple Gang or I wouldn't have been there. Anyway, it smelled of old sweat, cigarettes and wet leather, ladies’ perfume and all-beef wieners in mustard. You could hear bottles clinking—soda pop I thought—but when bills were exchanged under the counter I saw that it was something stronger. Could hear different languages too. Let me think now; Ukrainian, Polish, Spanish and Eye-talian.”
“You almost done?”
“Almost. It was mighty warm that evening, and just when I thought things would never get going the lights came on over the ring.” The doctor whistles long and high. “What a beaut. Floor the colour of sky on a clear day, and the ropes on all four sides bright as carnival candy. Each of the four judges was sitting on his side of the ring. The referees were there, in their white shirts and black pants. One of them ducked under the ropes. That's when I saw it: Abe Bernstein walking right up to a judge. I would've known him anywhere with his hollow-eyed mug always splashed across the front page of the papers. Bernstein pulled a thick wad out of his pants, peeled off a few bills and slipped them into the judge's shirt pocket. He leaned over and whispered something.”
“Hurts?” Doc John ignores his own trembling hand, the boy's burns being so raw. He raises his voice. “Julian Fingers Fontana versus Ruthless Eddie, now that hurt. But the fight never happened, see. The next thing I knew the announcer called both boxers and their coaches into the ring. There was a heated discussion, which I couldn't hear, and someone pointed to front row centre, behind the trophy table. There sat the rest of the Purple Gang, Raymond naked-chested and wearing boxer's shorts and boots, Izzy wrapping Ray's wrists and Joe passing him gloves. My heart somersaulted, I tell you. I sank down in my seat. Ruthless Eddie didn't look ruthless any more and Fingers Fontana couldn't stand still. I swear, if it'd been me I don't know what I would've done. Fight a Purple? There was no way to win.”
The boy fights the urge to yawn. He is unspeakably tired.
“Fingers Fontana and Ruthless Eddie had trained all year, were ready with their best techniques. Neither wanted to take a dive. Imagine fighting when you know there's no chance of it coming out fair. Imagine having no choice. Well Raymond stepped into the ring and the other Purples consulted each other. Joe approached and pointed at Fingers who turned whiter than a bedsheet. Fingers' coach nodded like a marionette, shoved a mouthguard into the fighter's mouth and pushed him forward. Ruthless Eddie was whisked out of the ring, more than a little relieved I suppose. When the second bell sounded Raymond beat it into the ring and Fingers was up against the ropes, in his own corner, faster than you could say Boo! Ray pounded on him like a hailstorm, like he was beating on some double-crossing thief. Upper cut, another upper cut, left hook, then right. Fingers had his gloves up in front of his face, couldn't manage to fight his way out. Didn't want to try. Finally there was an opening and instinct must've kicked in 'cause he jabbed Raymond in the forehead, snapped his neck right back. Fingers slipped out of the corner and went after the gang boss hard, like a hound smelling weakness, but Raymond hadn't taken as much punishment so he recovered fast and waled Fingers square in the nose. It broke on impact and bright red blood spurted all over his face and ran down his chest. Fingers grunted like an animal in a pen, charged at Raymond, forgetting who he was fighting I guess, and waled him in that spot under his rib cage. Right here.” The doctor points sharply to his own torso and the boy opens his eyes as widely as he can manage. “This area can send a big lug of a man crashing to his knees in seconds.”
“That what happened?”
“Yeah. Raymond dropped like he was praying for forgiveness and pretty soon the ref was calling six … seven … eight seconds on him. He staggered back up and the room went woolly. Half the place was cheering for Fingers and the other half was booing him. Folks didn't know how to react. Some beat it out of there. I froze when I saw the rest of the Purple Gang sit back in their chairs and open their jackets to let us have a good look at their hardware. Izzy crossed his legs, I remember that. He crossed them leisurely and lit a cigar. The ref went through the motions of collecting the judges' results, reading them and holding the fighters' arms over their heads by the wrists. He made the announcement, kind of singing it the way they do. ‘And the winner is … Frrrrom the red corner, Raaaaaaymond Bernstein!’ Well, you can guess what happened next. Fingers shoved the ref, and his coach jumped into the ring to hold him back. All three remaining Purples hopped the ropes and stood behind Raymond. Other folks were standing on their chairs, shouting obscenities at the judges. And what did the Bernstein brothers do? They straightened their jackets and adjusted their ties. Abe pulled out a sparkling .38 Special and pointed it at Fingers. He twisted the barrel in the air, like he was taking aim, and just as Fingers squeezed his eyes shut and sucked in what he thought was his last breath, Abe pulled the trigger. It fell on an empty chamber and when Fingers opened his eyes Abe and the whole Purple Gang roared. The worst part was seeing Fingers' face cave in. Before he'd been filled with heavy wet sand and now he was a dry, hollow man. He didn't care any more what happened to him; that was plain. The sight of him empty like that has stayed with me all this time.”
“No.” Doc John sets his brush in the basin of tepid water. “Not much in this life is.” He pats his hands dry on the front of his white coat, looks up to meet the boy's eyes. “But I suppose you already know that by now.” He turns towards the basin to carry it out into the hall and the boy reaches for his arm, holds him by the wrist.
“Did they kill him?”
“Fingers Fontana? No. Not that night.”
The boy releases his grip, closes his eyes and drifts off with thoughts of the Purple Gang. When he wakes hours later, in the black of night, he listens for the old man's voice but finds that it isn't there. Only the story remains.