Father was still drinking on Saturday, a few days before the Junior high school graduation. He hadn't worked in over a month and he had been drinking nearly two weeks.
He looked terrible. His face, which was a lean hard brown when he wasn’t drinking, was puffed and red. His eyes were bloodshot, his one popeye stuck out more than ever, and he needed a shave. But his hand shook too bad to use his straight razor and ordinarily he wouldn’t use a safety razor.
He hardly ever came home before midnight and he always woke me up with the noise he made in the next room. He would sit on the edge of his bed and roll brown-paper cigarettes with tobacco from the pound can that Grandpop, his father, gave him each month and put the cigarettes on the chair beside the bed. He would smoke and drink and talk to himself, always getting ready to fight someone. He was good with his fists, but he could only last a few minutes because of his asthma. After a while he would quiet down and go to sleep. But he shored loudly and his coughing shook the whole house. He coughed a lot at night, and there was a tearing sound about it as if he were trying to drag up something down inside him, something that wouldn’t come loose. He wheezed and gasped and choked and spit into a cardboard box that was filled with strips of torn newspaper. And in the morning when I looked in at him before going to school, he would be asleep, his head and shoulders propped up on two pillows so he was almost sitting. There were always ten or twelve cigarette butts in the ashtray and two or three whole cigarettes on the chair, and an empty pint bottle of whiskey on the floor beside the bed.
I hadn’t talked to him all week. I hadn’t wanted to wake him up just to tell him I was on my way to school, and he had been gone every afternoon when I got home. But I couldn’t wait any longer. Wednesday night the graduation was going to be held in the high school and Junior high school auditorium, which was also the gymnasium with the stage at one end of the gym, and we were going to have a dress-rehearsal on Tuesday afternoon.
I went in and shook Father. After a while he woke up, swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat on the edge of it, smoking a cigarette and rubbing his face with both hands. I told him about the suit.
“But why blue serge?” he asked. “Why wouldn’t a grey suit or a brown one do just as well?” Those were the only two suits he owned.
I told him what Miss Harmann, our science teacher and class advisor, had said about graduation being an important event in our lives, and how all the boys were going to wear blue serge suits, or dark suits, and how all the girls were going to have on white flannel skirts and dark jackets.
“Sounds pretty fancy,” Father said. “You figure the kids will all be there and rigged up like that?”
I said I hadn’t heard any of them say they wouldn’t be dressed that way.
“I guess they wouldn’t say anything at that,” Father said. “They’d just stay home if they didn’t have the clothes. You’d pass into high school if you hadn’t nothing but overalls to wear wouldn’t you?”
“I don’t think they’d keep me out,” I said. Father made the whole thing sound kind of silly somehow and I didn’t know if I could explain to him how it was because I was already different enough, being the biggest kid in class and a couple of years older than most of them from having missed so much school.
After Mother and Father were divorced when I was nine, I had lived part of the time with Mother and part with my father. Mother moved around a lot, and whenever I stayed with her it was always in some new city or town, and I had a new school to go to. Some of the schools had been strict and made me start over when I came in near the middle or the end of a term. And besides that, I had been going to this school not quite two months now, and I hadn’t made any real friends among the kids yet. I didn’t think I ever would, either, unless I could be more like the rest of them. There were more kids there whose folks were rich or well-to-do, than at any school I’d ever been to; kids who came from fine homes around Brentwood Heights and Westwood, and whose fathers and mothers worked in the movies, and a couple who were movie stars’ kids.
Father said, “Your grades all right, Neal?”
“They’re all right,” I said.
“Well, what’s the important thing—the grades, or the clothes?”
“The grades,” I said. That was what he wanted me to say. He had only gone as far as the fifth grade himself and he really wanted me to get an education. He always said that an education was the most valuable thing in the world and the one thing nobody could take away from me.
“All right, Neal,” he said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
He would stop drinking now, I was sure. But he was still too sick to work, even if he could have found a job.