This is the third chapter of a nine-chapter serial story to be published weekly in NeXt. The story takes place in the 1920s during Prohibition, when alcohol was illegal. It explores the life of gangsters and the harsh reality of their criminal enterprises.
Our story so far: Kenny discovered beer in Uncle George's car.
>Chapter Three / The Stupid Law
It was after dark when Kenny and Uncle Raymond got to their apartment in town. Raymond had brought in the box of extra food Meme sent home with them.
"Want a ham sandwich? I'm going to make myself one before I put this away," he said, and, because they were no longer at the farm, he was speaking English.
"Sure." Kenny had been silent, thinking, all the way home, and Raymond looked at him closely.
"What's on your mind?" he asked, as he cut slices from the crusty loaf of homemade bread.
Kenny sat down at the table in the little kitchen and looked at his hands while he thought another moment. He wished he hadn't tried to hide in George's car. He wished he'd never seen all the beer behind the seats of the Roadster.
"Why did you become a customs officer?" he asked.
"I needed a job," Raymond shrugged. "When I first got back from the war, you and your mother and George were all living at the farm, and they didn't need another mouth to feed. With my military training, it made sense to join the Plattsburgh police, but I didn't like it much, so, when they started hiring border patrol and customs officers, that was better."
He wrapped the ham back up and put it in the icebox, then put one sandwich in front of Kenny, picked up the other one and sat down. "Kids at school giving you a hard time?" he asked.
"Yeah," Kenny replied. "It's OK. I can take it. Just -- well, sometimes you have to arrest people we know."
"Just the ones who break the law," Raymond reminded him.
"But you have to arrest them, if they break the law, even if they're our friends," Kenny said.
Raymond nodded. "That's part of the job. I wish none of our friends and neighbors would ever break the law, but sometimes they do, and then, yes, I have to arrest them. It wouldn't be fair if I let them go just because we were friends, would it?"
Kenny ate for a moment, thinking. "Nobody likes that law," he said, at last. "Everybody thinks it's stupid."
"How do you think it became a law, then?" Raymond challenged him. "You've studied civics. What does it take to amend the Constitution?"
"Three-quarters of the states," Kenny recited, as if he were in class.
"Three-quarters of the states wanted that law," Raymond agreed. "And look at the newspaper. There have been columns about Prohibition and temperance in the paper as long as I can remember. People wanted this law; a lot of people wanted this law. And now they've got it."
"And you have to enforce it," Kenny said. Raymond shrugged and silently spread his hands in agreement. "Even if you found out that someone you really liked was a bootlegger, you'd have to arrest him," Kenny said.
"If I found out," Raymond repeated. "Yes. I believe in the law. Your father and I both believed in this country. That's why we went to France. And I still believe in this country. Your grandfather's grandfather came here. He didn't want to leave his family; that's why he didn't go very far, just across the border. But he wanted good land and he wanted to be in America. And our family has made a good life here."
Kenny decided to take a chance. "George still goes back to Canada," he said, watching Raymond's face. "He goes up to Hemmingford to work construction almost every week."
"And Paul does bookkeeping for the other apple growers, and Martin cuts wood for the charcoal burners in Black Brook," Raymond agreed. "Farmers always need other jobs, just to make enough money."
Did he know? Did he not know? Kenny couldn't tell. "Today, at dinner, did you hear what Martin said?" he asked.
"I don't listen to much of what Martin says," Raymond responded, and his voice was calm but Kenny could feel emotion behind that calmness. "Your aunt Irene loves Martin, and she's my baby sister and I love her. But Martin is not a very happy person, and sometimes he says things he probably shouldn't."
"He's a hard worker and he takes good care of his family," Raymond said. "He's good to Irene and the boys. But he has this idea that the whole world is picking on him."
"Because he grew up speaking French," Kenny said.
Raymond snorted. "I grew up speaking French," he said. "We all did, just like -- well, not half the people in the county, but a lot of them. The world isn't picking on us."
Then he sat forward, leaning across the table and lowering his voice as if someone might overhear. "Listen, you have to keep this to yourself, but you're old enough to hear it and I think you need to. Someone picked on Martin, but it wasn't 'the world.' It was his father. He used to come home drunk at night and beat his whole family. Then one winter night, when Martin was still a little boy, his father was coming home drunk and he fell through the ice on the Saranac River and drowned, and left them with nothing. Nothing."
Raymond sat back up. "I don't blame Martin for being an angry person, but I don't listen to him, either. And I don't think Prohibition is a stupid law."
Next week: Some visitors come to the farm.
Funded by the New York State United Teachers and New York Newspapers Foundation. Text copyright 2011, Mike Peterson. Illustrations copyright 2011, Christopher Baldwin.
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