The Ballad of Joe Hill

by Wallace Caminsky

Where other men of his generation sang “The Road to Mandalay” in the shower, Clarence preferred union songs. But once out of the shower, he would put on his outer skin—a dark blue vested suit, a sober tie, and a somber expression—and march solemnly, like a corporate priest, to his job with the Hansen Motor Company.

He was a company lawyer, specializing in arbitration cases. A tall bulky man, he bore an impressive, leonine head and a waistline of heroic dimensions. People who liked him said he was powerfully-built, a perfect corporate image: serious, grave, responsible, a solid rock to build on. Those who didn’t—thin Ivy Leaguers for the most part---said he was fat, and a fake.

“You know, he really isn’t one of us,” they would whisper nasally.

It was true that after arguing the company’s case—cases that he won far more often than he lost—he enjoyed nothing more than retiring with his union counterparts to some obscure bar where they could drink beer, play a little pinball and sing loud, raucous union songs. He felt at home, and totally relaxed—a vest-loosened fat man drinking beer.

“Is he one of us?” the union men would wonder. “Or is he a company spy?”

Only his wife Alice—a small, wiry woman, who wore her hair in a pony tail, read the Partisan Review, and got an A in Abnormal Psychology at State—knew her husband for what he really was: a nut.

Perhaps because of his strange Jekyll-and-Hyde existence, Clarence had developed an equally strange belief.

He was convinced that his car was out to get him.

He’d always credited inanimate objects with living a malevolent, secret life. Chairs rearranged themselves at night so that he’d trip over them in the dark; slippers were always hiding themselves; pens loved to vomit ink into his breast pocket. Then gradually, through his years with Hansen, a suspicion grew that his car disliked him. It would show up in the little things: an engine that stalled at an intersection, tires that went flat at the most awkward times. They were irritating things, but hardly vicious, at first.

It was different with the arrival of his new 1961 Hansen. As soon as he saw it, Clarence knew that this car was different: it sat there sullenly, crouched low like a poisonous toad, measuring him through its insolent headlamps. The brow of its hood was low and coarse with chrome, and the grille wore the imprint of a loutish sneer. When he looked from the side, the sneer turned into a snarl, posing like an over-dressed poolroom tough, daring him to a game of chicken.

“I swear, Alice,” he once said to his wife, “that smart-aleck car waited—waited !—until I got on the expressway before it conked out. Now why did it wait?”

“You forgot to fill the tank and it ran out of gas,” Alice replied.

“Yes, but why on the expressway? During the rush hour. Why not before? And why did it sneer at the time, like it was enjoying the mess?”

No matter what his wife tried to tell him, Clarence couldn’t shake the knowledge that his car was lying in wait for him. And by winter, he had his proof.

It was after the first heavy snowfall and Clarence was backing the car down their narrow, one-martini driveway (he’d measured it carefully, and with two martinis he ran the risk of running into the neighbor’s house). He was handling his part of the job very carefully, when one of the rear wheels, deliberately and with malice aforethought, left the cement and buried itself in the banked wet snow on the front lawn. He rocked it, pleaded with it, swore at it, but it would not give up. Thinking quickly, Alice hurried their three-year-old son into the den and turned the television as loud as she could while the boy’s father filled the air with many of the the oldest, shortest words in the language. Defiantly, the car just fish-tailed further and further into the front lawn until, finally, Clarence had to admit defeat.

Even the man from the auto club was shocked. The car had wedged itself in the driveway. Sideways. Rear bumper jammed into the brick of Clarence’s house, front bumper inches away from the face brick of the neighbor’s house. The man from the auto club had to call in extra equipment for the job, and Clarence spent the whole rest of the day outside, doing what he could to help. Shortly thereafter, the poor auto club mechanic left town, and went to live with his maiden aunt in Encino, California. Within two years, he was raising bees and letting his beard grow.

Through the rest of the winter and on into spring, the secret battle went on, grim and unrelenting, with each side claiming minor victories through the ensuing skirmishes. Through it all, Clarence sang his union songs in the shower, buckled on his dark blue vested wool armor, and learned other labor songs at his dingy little bar. But always the question nagged him: when would the rumble come? And how?


The showdown came after a party at his boss’s house.

The party was only for the most favored members of the Industrial Relations Staff. To be invited was an honor since the Chief of Industrial Relations entertained so rarely. Aside from the annual “Calvin Coolidge Ball” he sponsored, he was practically a recluse.

Clarence had been nervous, about both the party and the machinations of his enemy. To steady himself, he had a couple of shots at the bar. His nerves steadied, when he got home he had a few more to relax. Relaxed, he felt warm, so he took off his vest. And he started to feel comfortable. By the time he and Alice arrived at the party, he felt completely at home and wondered where the pinball machine was.

At three in the morning, when Alice convinced Clarence that it was time to leave, he was happy and content with himself. He wasn’t sure why, because the events of the evening were a bit cloudy, but he was sure he’d acquitted himself well. It didn’t even bother him when the car peevishly ran over the birdbath on the front lawn.

It didn’t bother him because the moon was out and the hills looked beautiful and the trees were pale and danced slowly when the breeze asked them to. And the car growled low and deep, and the flowers by the passing restaurants were all beautiful.

“Isn’itbeautiful,” he rhapsodized. It came out as one word, but Alice didn’t seem to notice.

“Hmph,” she said.

He had scintillated, he mused. His mind had worked like a well-oiled machine, imbuing his conversation with brilliance, lending it precision, sparking it with flashes of his subtle wit.

He hummed a few lines of “Picket Line Priscilla” and then snapped on the radio.

Woodward was empty, temptingly so. The moon was in the sky and they were rolling towards Birmingham. He thought about challenging the car to a race to see which of them would chicken out first. But it might upset Alice, so he decided not to.

He tried to glance at her tenderly, but discovered that his eyes had started blinking individually. He tried to puzzle it out, but they were passing through Birmingham and he had to concentrate, because some of the streets cut through at odd angles. He was happily humming the “Blue Danube Waltz” along with the car radio, which was playing “Tea for Two Cha-Cha,” when Alice made an observation.

“Clare,” she said simply, “you were a drunken slob.”

He tried to assume an affronted air but, unfortunately, just hiccuped.

“My dear, you have obviously been drinking to excess tonight,” he said, carefully choosing his words, and giving his tongue plenty of time to feel for each of them.

“A fat, drunken slob,” she continued.

“Oh yeah?” he replied. His mind churned with snappy comebacks, but the only one his brain could sort out was: “That’s what you think.”

“Turn here,” she said. And Clarence turned right sharply off Woodward Avenue onto Coolidge. The tires squealed and Clarence leaned hard on the door, which started to rattle. He felt a cold chill. The car hadn’t given up yet. Obviously, he’d have to be careful. He opened the door and slammed it shut and sped through a traffic signal, barely beating the yellow light.

“Tell me, Clare,” Alice resumed quietly. “Tonight of all nights, did you really have to do your imitation of a male hippopotamus courting a mate? You’re certainly built for the male lead. But I don’t think it was wise to pick your boss’s wife for the love interest.”

Clarence had forgotten that bit. He was a little shocked that he had dared. But mostly, he was awed. All the way through Berkley, he remained awed. And then the beauty of it began to shine through, and Clarence snickered.

“If I were a male hippo,” he giggled, “she certainly would have fooled me.”

Like a door opening, that part of the evening came alive again, and he giggled his way past Huntington Woods and on through Oak Park.

They crossed Eight Mile Road and passed into Detroit, where Coolidge Road turned into Schaefer.

“You want me to take the sitter home?” Alice asked.

“Of course not. I can do it. I want you to rest.” He leered at her.

“Wipe that sexy hippo look off your face,” Alice scowled. “You’ll only fall asleep.”

He tried leering again, but his eyes still hadn’t gotten in phase, so he gave it up with a grunt. He stopped, but just barely, for a light at Seven Mile.

“And another thing, Clare,” Alice said thoughtfully. “I don’t think the V-P in charge of Industrial Relations for the Hansen Motor Company is all that interested in how many stanzas of ‘I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’ have been recorded. And honestly now, do you really and truly think that he wanted to hear you sing every single one? I mean, maybe he was just being polite when he sat there, listening with his mouth open like that.”

“I didn’t do that,” he hiccupped.

“You did,” she said.

The little boy had been no trouble at all, the baby sitter said when they woke her up. A perfect angel. And they could call her anytime. Clarence helped her into her coat and guided her towards the front door. At the door, Alice asked him another question.

“Did you know you sat on their bathroom sink?”

“You mean...?”

“Ripped the whole cotton-picking mess right out of the wall, Fatso,” she said and slammed the door.

“Is it fun being a lawyer?” the babysitter wanted to know. Clarence hiccupped again and led her to the car.

To get the babysitter home, Clarence drove west on Outer Drive and turned north on Schaefer to one of the side streets past Seven Mile. By the time he started back, it was after four o’clock.

The car purred with sinister efficiency. The streets were deserted. The whole city was asleep. He was out alone with a monster and where was everybody? He drove considerably above the posted speed limit and sang songs.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me,
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead”
“I never died,” says he.

As he approached Seven Mile, the light turned red. It seemed silly to stop—everyone was asleep, after all—so he slowed down to a cautious forty-five, looked both ways very carefully, and sped on through.

His boss’s wife did look like a female hippo, he chuckled.

“The copper bosses killed you, Joe.
They shot you, Joe,” says I.
“Takes more than guns to kill a man,”
Says Joe, “I didn’t die.”

It was exhilarating, being alone and above the law. And singing union songs. His boss should sing them, Clarence thought; he’d understand his job better.

And standing there as big as life.
And smiling with his eyes,
Joe says, “What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize.”

The intersection at Six Mile and Schaefer was the center of an big shopping center. On the southeast corner was a department store, on the southwest, a group of small stores: a men’s shop, a record emporium, and a hardware store. The two other corners were occupied by a drug store and a gas station.

The light was green as Clarence approached the intersection. But it had been green for a while, so he stomped down on the gas pedal. The car leapt forward eagerly, the engine roaring a brisk “Tally-ho!”

Nearing the corner, he noticed a big black car parked by the department store corner, with a red light on top that went round and round and round and the word “Police” written in big white letters on the side. He looked to see that the caution light was yellow now, and he seemed to recall it being that way for quite some time.

In the instant before reaching the corner, a surge of adrenalin brought a flash of sobriety to his brain. Suddenly, Clarence found himself stone-cold sober, with all his well-oiled mental faculties feverishly at work, considering what to do. His brain raced along in high gear; slowed down to the level of mortals, his superhuman thought process ran something like this:

I’m going way too fast. They know it and I know it. And on top of that, I’ve been drinking. I could get into real trouble.

If I keep going straight, I’ll just ‘whoosh’ past them and it’ll make everything sound even faster. And I can’t possibly slow it down enough so that it won’t go ‘whoosh.’ So—?

So I’ll just make a quick right turn onto Six Mile and everything will be just fine.

He made the turn. The tires squealed and he was thrown heavily against the door.

The next thing he knew, he was bouncing down Six Mile on his rump, his legs still flexed in a driving position and both hands curled tightly around a phantom steering wheel.

When he stopped bouncing, he continued to sit, squinting at the men’s shop through suddenly blurry eyes. At least, he thought it was a men’s shop. Then a blizzard of white shirts started falling over everything, and he worried about going snow blind as the shirts rose and fell, wafting gently over the hood of a car whose door on the driver’s side was wide open. But it didn’t really look like a car, he noticed; it looked more like a pile of junk. A dead pile of junk.

Two policemen were suddenly squatting in front of him, asking if he was all right.

He removed one hand from the phantom steering wheel to scratch his head. “I’m fine,” he said. “But I seem to have misplaced my car.”

Puzzled, he looked around.

“Don’t bother looking for it, though. I’ll just walk.”

Excerpt ©2008 by Wallace Caminsky
Website ©2007 by Jeffrey Caminsky