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      Border City Blues



      Michael Januska



      for Laurie

      The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple

      buttons off his shabby uniform. The third stood in the center of

      the city’s main intersection — Broadway and Union Street — directing traffic,

      with a cigar in one corner of his mouth.

      After that I stopped checking them up.

      — Dashiell Hammett

      from Red Harvest

      Four and twenty Yankees, feeling very dry,

      Went across the border to get a drink of rye,

      When the rye was opened, the Yanks began to sing,

      God bless America, but God save the King!

      — A Prohibition toast


      First I have to thank the Anti-Saloon League’s Wayne Wheeler for conceiving and drafting the National Prohibition Act, and Andrew Volstead, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee for helping make it law in 1919. Cheers to them.

      Kidding aside, I have to thank Marty Gervais whose writings and tireless enthusiasm for the Border Cities continue to be a source of inspiration. There are other people in my hometown who each endeavour in their own way to preserve and share its rich history. I have them to thank as well (and now we can all be crazy together).

      An early version of the chapter “Ojibway” appeared in the Windsor Review, and I would like to acknowledge the Review for their support and Alex McKay for shepherding that through and for the occasional kick in the pants.

      It is such a boost to have one’s work recognized. I’d like to thank again the Scene of the Crime Author Festival for twice honouring my work, two short stories, both of which were set in the world of Riverside Drive.

      Hats off to my editor, Allister Thompson, who was an early champion of Riverside Drive and got me to pull it out of the bottom of my desk drawer. And thanks to the rest of the talented individuals at Dundurn for helping putting it between covers, both paper and virtual.

      Much thanks and gratitude to family both near and far for their patience and encouragement. I know writers can be such tiresome people.

      Lastly I would like to express my gratitude for the teachers I had who never stopped telling me that creative people do indeed have a valuable place in society. I know not all of us get to hear that.


      (APRIL 1919–JULY 1922)

      — Chapter 1 —


      April, 1919

      Jack McCloskey returned from the war so restless and full of nervous energy he couldn’t stand without pacing or walk without running, and whenever he got behind the wheel of his car it was a test of the machine’s endurance. While folks in town may have sympathized, they were also getting a little tired of dancing around him like he was an unexploded artillery shell.

      The turning point for Jack came one April morning when he set out in his Olds 37 for the post office on the main road and wound up lost in the next county. He pulled over onto the shoulder when he realized he had been driving around blind for close to an hour. An old farmer mending a fence on the other side of the ditch gave him directions home. When the same thing happened a few days later he didn’t pull over or even bother to slow down, not even after he noticed the blood smear on his shirtsleeve. He just kept driving.

      He was somewhere on the other side of Wheatley, heading east on the Talbot Road along Erie’s north shore. Stealing glances at the stony beach and rough blue water, he wondered if he wasn’t somehow trying to drive himself back to his senses. He listened to the tires grind the road and the gravel ping off the fenders. He watched the farms shrink in his rearview mirror before disappearing in the clouds of yellow dust. Putting the last couple of months behind him would be a good start, he thought, a good first step.

      He thought about that for a few more miles before deciding to take the long way home around Lake Erie. He suddenly felt a small measure of calm. He told himself he was doing the right thing. He hoped his father would understand. He knew his brother wouldn’t. But understanding was never something they expected from each other. What they expected, and got in spades, were rivalries and petty differences that too often blew up into fistfights. Their father tried not to take sides, but there were times when it was the only way to settle a matter.

      The road wound away from and then back towards the shore. Sometimes it was level with the beach while other times it traced the edge of a bluff. He felt like he was stitching the land to the lake. At one point the road disappeared into a dense cluster of maples. When it broke through, McCloskey looked out and noticed a couple fishing boats heading into the open water. It occurred to him that he hadn’t been stateside since he was a boy, on mysterious journeys with his father that he now knows were rendezvous with other smugglers. That was a lifetime ago.

      McCloskey re-examined the blood on his shirtsleeve. It had turned brown. Was it his? He didn’t seem to be cut anywhere and wasn’t in any kind of pain. He searched his mind but had no recollection of leaving the house, let alone the circumstances under which he did so. He rolled up his shirtsleeve and turned his mind back on the road.

      A couple of weeks passed before Frank McCloskey received word from his eldest son that he was working on a construction site in Toledo. Jack had been nearing the end of his 600-mile odyssey when, approaching Michigan, he saw a sign for the Canadian border and hesitated. He wasn’t ready to go home quite yet, though that’s not exactly what he said in his first postcard home. He simply told his father everything was fine but not to expect him any time soon.

      Jack got himself hitched to a team of labourers hired to demolish and excavate a city block. They worked right alongside the tractors and steam shovels with their crowbars and sledgehammers. It was brutal work but he threw himself into it. Having succeeded in driving himself from distraction, he was now set to realign his mind and body. The workers, many of them veterans, were put up in barracks. On the off hours they gambled, drank, and beat on each other. Eventually these three activities were amalgamated into bare-knuckle matches fought in the back room of Buckeye’s — the local watering hole.

      Although he was passionate about boxing and had won many regimentals, McCloskey wasn’t interested in any of this. He figured if he got injured in a fight he could be out of a job as well as out of a purse. And judging by the size of the purse, it wasn’t worth the risk. He could be quite pragmatic. That is, until he got inspired.

      A few weeks later, under a blazing hot Fourth of July sun, he and several thousand other fight fans sat in a makeshift arena over in Bay View Park and witnessed Jack Dempsey take on Jess Willard for the world heavyweight title. Dempsey looked disciplined, focused as he timed the release of each devastating blow. Willard had at least forty pounds on Dempsey, but Dempsey’s skill and ferocious power almost crippled the defending champion before the end of the first round.

      Willard staggered about the blood-splattered mat for another six minutes; taking hit after hit, his right eye swollen shut, his face a crimson mess. Before the bell signalled the start of the fourth round, someone from Willard’s corner threw in the towel and it landed at Dempsey’s feet. Dempsey had battered Willard within an inch of his life. Cheering fans swarmed the ring and carried off their new champion. The next morning McCloskey found a gym and started training.

      A fellow from the

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