At three minutes before three o’clock on Tuesday, as Jared is buttoning up his coveralls in the locker room, Felton comes in and says, “Draft Marshal’s here again.”
Jared slams his locker and heads for the stairwell that leads up to the overpass from Building G over the scrap bins to a parts- recovery division, where broken parts are either retooled or sent back to the furnaces. Sure enough, the Draft Marshal’s black Lincoln limousine is parked diagonally across two of the loading docks. He does this just to piss off Swerdlow, who can be counted on to come out of his office and rail about the Marshal jamming up the works. Swerdlow’s got to be careful, though; the Marshal has the authority to pick men right off the line and disappear them into the OEI office. He’s the reason they’re all here; he’s also connected, and he’s also vindictive. Swerdlow has to yell or he’ll look like he doesn’t care enough about production efficiency, but he can’t yell too much or he’ll look like he’s sheltering his men at the expense of troop strength at the front.
The guys on the Frankenline read the papers, and they listen to the radio, and they get stories from the returning vets who wash up at the Rouge. Today Winchell says that II Corp has finished off the Axis forces in Tunisia, but who knows? Everything they get is filtered in one way or another, and they know this, so their real sense of how the war is going comes from one source only. When the Draft Marshal comes through more than once a month, it means the OEI is twitchy, and that means things aren’t so hot. Jared runs through his memory. He thinks it’s been eight days. The back of his neck starts to prickle. He punches in and relieves Morten Gutersen, who as usual hasn’t kept the station’s tools clean. Irritation with Morten’s dumb laziness takes Jared’s mind off the Draft Marshal for the two minutes it takes him to hose off the trowel and rake. By the time he’s back to the line, the Draft Marshal is coming out onto the catwalk.
The Draft Marshal is huge, bursting from his ancient uniform with its spangling of medals from San Juan Hill or some other mythological place. One of the Czechs over in the glassworks calls him Sergeant Vanek, after a character in a novel Jared’s never read. Jared has a standing request of God that the catwalk will fail under the Draft Marshal’s weight; he reconciles his hatred by catego- rizing the Draft Marshal’s many evil qualities. Pomposity, snobbery, bloodlust, avarice, and so on. Individually they don’t merit a sudden death, but Jared’s a big believer in collective assessment when it comes to sin. The Draft Marshal is flanked by weak-chinned adjutants with clipboards, and his cold blue gaze falls on Jared as they pass overhead. Fourteen times the Draft Marshal has come in and marched along the catwalk before leaving Building G to plague the other lines. Each time he has looked at Jared, and each time Jared prays to be taken and prays to be left. After two years of hacking clay apart, the bloom is definitively off the rose of working on a secret munitions project. Jared’s tired of feeling ashamed whenever he sees real soldiers.
The Frankenline grinds to a stop while the Draft Marshal conducts his appraisal; it’s just impossible to work while he’s up there dictating notes to his flunkies, and anyway the shift change is just finished. Swerdlow storms in screaming that the Marshal is killing fine American boys in Europe and the Pacific by stopping the lines to waddle along the catwalk looking for malingerers who aren’t there. The Marshal ignores him, which is also part of the pageant. Jared is comforted a little by the sameness of it all.
Then the Marshal says, “That one there,” and Jared knows it’s him. “You. What’s your name?”
Jared looks up at him. “Jared Cleaves.”
“Why aren’t you at the front, Cleaves?”
Jared holds up his right hand. The ring and pinkie fingers are crooked. When he wiggles the other fingers and thumb, the two fingers move from the knuckle only. They have strength enough, but he can barely bend them. “Nerve damage,” he says. “I can’t hold a rifle.”
“Two fingers are holding you out of this war?” The Marshal draws the words out, freights them with contempt.
“I’ve been to the draft board every six months. Every time they turn me down.” Shame heats up on Jared’s face. Every recitation of those bare facts is like confessing to robbing a blind old woman. There’s also the little matter of him not supposed to be going to the draft board, since the Frankenline is an essential wartime project with OEI stamped all over it, and even if the draft board wanted him they wouldn’t take him—but nobody can blame a man for wanting to serve.
“We’ll find something for you. Report first thing in the morning,” the Marshal says. He pivots with some grace and locks eyes with Swerdlow, holding the gaze as he walks trailed by his flunkies out the door.
The Jeweler walks up to Jared with a wide grin and his hand extended to shake. Jared feints, then pulls his hand back for the traditional smoothing of the hair, prompting a burst of laughter. It’s not so much that what he’s done is funny, more that when the Marshal leaves, the men of the Frankenline overreact to everything until they’ve purged their tension. The handshake gag is already Frankenline tradition, since nobody shakes the Jeweler’s hand.
The molders revolted against Moises’ dictum that a single man had to make a golem from start to finish when the rabbi demanded they make the golems what the textbooks called anatomically correct. “What the hell,” Jem wondered at the time. “We haven’t made no women golems.” It hadn’t made any sense to them then, and still doesn’t, but Moises stood his ground and finally a tubby Latvian whose name Jared never learned was elected to specialize in golem family jewels. Immediately Felton dubbed him the Jeweler, and all kinds of superstitions sprang up around him. They didn’t shake his hand, they learned all of the Eastern European slang words for queer, they bought him a loupe at Hanukkah after Felton went and looked up when it was. The Jeweler took it all in good humor, or pretended to, because the other molders paid him ten dollars a week for his trouble; everybody else just chalked it up as one more thing about Moises that a rational man couldn’t figure out.
Jared finishes his shift in a state of near exaltation. For a second time he has been tapped by the Draft Marshal, who everyone knows was behind the original selection of the Frankenline’s crew. This is the big leagues, Jared thinks. I’ve been groomed. I’m ready.
Is he ever. The initial thrill of taking part in a top-secret project to slow Hitler’s advance across Europe—and using the magic of the Untermensch to do it—has long since worn off during the two and a half years Jared has been busting clay. When he started work on the Frankenline, the war was distant; now it is every day’s headlines. Jared knows four men who have died, one in Tunisia and three in the South Pacific. He doesn’t want to join their company, but he wants to be able to tell his daughter Emily that his service to the free world involved more than troweling clay and hosing out freight cars. And he’s man enough to admit that he’s rankled by the fact that his wife has a better job than he does. Colleen strips damaged engines at Willow Run; she’s in the UAW, she makes more money than he does, and he can’t even tell her the details of what he does. Sometimes being in on a national secret doesn’t quite make up for all of that.
Jem and Felton drag him out after work to a bar Felton knows in Hamtramck across from Dodge Main. It isn’t clear how Felton knows a bar in Hamtramck, where bored gangs of teenage Poles spend their evenings looking for coloreds to beat up, but that’s Felton for you. The only Negroes in this part of Detroit come to work at the Dodge plant and get the hell out when the whistle blows, especially now that Poletown’s all riled up about the Sojourner Truth housing project out on Fenelon. Maybe Felton worked at the plant? Jared doesn’t know. Whoever runs the bar either doesn’t know that Prohibition was repealed or is waiting for it to be reinstated; from the outside, all you see is a blank door in a windowless part of an apartment house. Walk in, and you find cable-spool tables, a bar hammered together out of scrap lumber by a carpenter unconcerned with finish work, and two or three gloomy survivors of another second shift building tanks. Large swaths of the plaster walls are rotted away, with newspaper pages thumbtacked straight to the wall studs. Their corners ruffle as the door closes behind Jared, and he’s thinking to himself that he’ll be lucky to finish a beer before the whole building falls down. Some place for a sendoff to the war.
“Look smart, here!” Jem shouts. “Our boy Jared is off to the war tomorrow, by God! Let’s show him a good time tonight!”
Somehow this works. As if Jem has sent out a homing signal for anyone within ten blocks who’s thirsty and wants to show Jared Cleaves a good time—which might be the case, since Jem is one leather-lunged hillbilly and his voice probably carried through the heating ducts into every apartment in the building—all of a sudden people are crowding through the door. Glasses tall and small come to their table. The music gets loud, some women show up, people dance. Jem has performed a mystifying act of conjuration. The goodwill is thick enough that nobody even complains about Felton being in Hamtramck. The women want to dance with Jared, and he goes along with it even though he doesn’t like dancing. He likes the feel of a body close to his, though, and the way things are with Colleen lately . . .
Alcohol gives Jared a kind of safety hatch when his thoughts turn in that direction. The hatch clangs down now, and he relaxes into the succession of embraces, the brush of hip and hip, the slide of a partner’s breasts across his chest—and the look in her eyes as she watches his reaction. He won’t go with one of them, of course not; no man has ever been as married as Jared Cleaves. That doesn’t stop him from enjoying the sweetness of the desire. Later the girls go home, and as Jared and Jem and Felton head for the door the bartender reminds them to keep Felton east of Woodward—but not too far east—if they don’t want trouble. Felton says something back to the bartender that Jared doesn’t quite catch, and the bartender is still laughing when the door bangs shut behind them.
They drop Felton at his place in Paradise Valley, in a four-story building with a jazz club called El Sino on the ground floor. Music is still coming from the open door when Felton hops out of Jem’s car. “Give them Japs hell, boy,” Felton says, and then he’s gone.
“Goddamn, ain’t Detroit a hell of a place.” Jem is laughing as they head down toward Grand Circus Park and across to Fort Street. “A nigger just called you boy.”
“That’s not a nigger, that’s Felton,” Jared says.
“I take your point, but still. Detroit is a hell of a place.” Jem roars down Fort Street past the old train depot, squealing his tires around the corners that lead to Jared’s house. Jared weaves up his sidewalk, head full of the squeal of tires and whoever it was he heard on the radio talking about conserving rubber: Is this trip necessary?
Excerpted from The Narrows by Alexander C. Irvine. Copyright © 2005 by Alexander Irvine. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.