Fiction by James Gyure
IT’S BIG STEEL and good money that lure you back to the valley, where the mills and mines are the smoky heart of your old hometown.
This is the summer of ’73, college graduation, your future as bright as the sun sitting high in the blistering sky. You showed promise young, an only child, a favored son. Your teachers smiled and coaxed, willing to offer bribes. Your parents just hovered, stern and nervous, in unfamiliar territory. Your test scores were like long-shot lottery winnings, Grandma lighting votive lamps for scholarships, your father moonlighting behind the bar at the V.F.W. These were their signs of love. You had a chance to be bigger than the valley.
You got praise for working hard at it, for being a slide-rule-carrying, formula-memorizing, learning-the-laws-of-thermodynamics, yes sir here’s my assignment kind of guy. Your aunts said, Hey, keep at it, kiddo, and you did. Plus, you were lucky. An almost untouchable lottery number had saved you from the draft. You don’t say much about that anymore, but you know you were lucky. You remember a chilly autumn morning during your first term as a freshman, headed for a nine o’clock class, walking slowly across the border of the campus mall, where hundreds of students gathered on the grass around someone reading names into a microphone. Despite all those people, it was eerily quiet, wisps of fog here and there making the whole scene cinematic. You watched a couple of local TV cameramen shooting close-ups of the students’ hand-lettered signs, their headbands and fatigue jackets, and then swinging their cameras around to focus in on the briefcases and book bags carried by students like yourself, rushing to class. You guessed they would make some kind of point about the contrasting images on the Six O’clock News, and you hurried past the mall, staying out of the range of the cameras. You skirted talk about the war during your college years. For job interviews, you cut your curly hair short and trimmed your pale mustache.
Now you’ve come home, a brand new engineer, and your whole family welcomes you as if you’ve been on some exotic journey. Everyone is proud and happy. Your aunts, who have called you Timmy since you were born, still call you Timmy, not Timothy, not Tim, which is what you call yourself now. Your parents’ graduation gift is a big leather briefcase with combination locks.
You have to wait more than a month to start, living at home and having time to kill. Your girlfriend Suzanne is back in her own home town, already busy with her new job. You patch together weekend visits, dodging her parents and making excuses to be alone so you can kiss and argue and apologize, running your hand along her thigh. You squeeze in fervent, half-dressed lovemaking wherever you can (“Your friend’s house? I don’t care if they’re out. What if we get caught?” “Don’t you want to? Should I tell her to forget it?” “No! No. I mean of course I want to.”), but always afraid that someone will hear you, or show up unexpectedly, will notice your flushed cheeks, your jumpy hands.
At home, you hang out with a few friends who are still in town, watching baseball and getting drunk on draft beer in local bars, awkward around those who are now laborers in the mill. A couple of the guys at the bar are vets, just back and looking for work, but taking their time.
“How you doin’, man? Hey, what are you gonna be again?”
“I’ll be in the engineering department. The management trainee program.”
“Cool shit, man.”
“Yeah, I’m lucky.”
The days drag. The grass is dry and brittle from the heat, but you push the mower around the yard in the cooler mornings for something to do. You fill afternoons with TV, watching serious-faced Senators grilling somber men in suits about Watergate. A place called Wounded Knee is in the news, and the pictures of the South Dakota landscape catch your eye; you have never been farther west than Toledo. You listen to eight-track tapes of Leon Russell, Cat Stevens, and ZZ Top—Tres Hombres is your soundtrack for the hot summer days.
But you have come back home because of the steel. Back to the smokestacks that flamed blue in the valley sky all the evenings of your boyhood, the grimy buildings with their high windows and disheartening sameness stretched out along the river, rail cars on tracks that go nowhere, giant coils of wire rusting in the lousy weather. Back to where fathers and brothers and neighbors work the blast furnace and car shop. The mills were a backdrop to your childhood: your father going to sleep and waking up at crazy hours, having a morning beer with breakfast before he went to bed after his 11 to 7 shift; sweating out a risky six-month strike; not knowing what to do with himself during the thirteen-week vacation negotiated by the union, wasting time, fussing in the garden, getting you to help with lame household projects. You and your smartass eighth-grade friends leaned out of the windows of a trolley to yell at the men with their lunch pails waiting on street corners for their rides: “Hey, Charlie Millrat!”
You live with your parents for those first couple of years, sleeping in the same room you slept in as a kid. It’s a tall, narrow house, three stories high and little more than one room wide. Your bedroom is on the third floor, and you commandeer the adjoining space–your mother calls it a “guest room,” although there are never any guests to use it–and it’s almost like a small apartment, private, but hot as hell in the summer.
In the stifling room, you try on the clothes you’ve bought for the job, suits with wide lapels, striped shirts, ties, wingtips, even new underwear. You like how you look, how the clothes make you feel. You know your father has a single gray suit he wears to every wedding and funeral, and you know that the wristwatch Suzanne’s parents gave you for graduation is worth more than all of the watches your father has ever owned. You slip it off and put it in your dresser drawer.
Now, to pass the time, to get out of the sweltering house, to respond to some uncertainty you feel in your gut, you take midnight drives, just like the late-night drives you took as a teen, a girl tucked next to you in the front seat of the family’s Plymouth, wide as a bus it seemed, a thirteen-block straight shot down Olson Avenue, past a half-dozen churches, each with their own ethnic congregation and neighborhood bar, the streets almost empty, the strict geometry of streetlights spilling their long cones of illumination, and on the dark horizon the blazing stacks and shadowy plumes that still define the night sky.
You spend time on your wedding plans, long phone calls with Suzanne, details that bewilder you as the date gets closer. You work hard and save your money, putting up with your father’s escalating silence–he still tends bar at the V.F.W when he isn’t sleeping or at the mill–and your mother’s jumbled housekeeping. Each day she talks about things she needs to do, and each day ends up doing not much at all–packing a lunch for your father, doing some laundry, running the vacuum. You hear the daily phone calls with her mother evolve into disjointed but animated arguments, a few phrases of choppy Slovak mixed in. The house is as cluttered as ever–laundry piled in baskets, waiting to be folded or ironed, groceries sitting in their brown paper bags, waiting to be stacked in the cupboard, newspapers set aside to be read later, articles to be clipped and saved. She waves off your half-hearted offers to help, which seem to make her more nervous.
On Saturday mornings when you’re around, you drive your mother to the A&P for groceries. One day, after you’ve packed the bags in the trunk, you wait before starting the car. You’re not sure why you decide on this particular moment, but you turn to her and say, “Mom, I feel bad about leaving.”
It doesn’t come out as heartfelt as you’d like. You were thinking it might sound responsible, even magnanimous, but there’s an edge of unintended melodrama in your tone. With work and friends and Suzanne and wedding plans, you know you’re already out of the house most of the time. All the same, you feel that your living at home again has affected routines, has filled in spaces that would be otherwise silent, has kept in balance a set of forces that, without you, would tip into uncertainty and disruption.
“Oh my, don’t worry about such a thing. I won’t be lonely. And I don’t have the sugars like Grandma. I check on that. The doctor says my heart’s still strong—.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“So, what do you mean?”
What do you mean? It occurs to you that you may have inflated the importance of the role you play in their lives. Their blessing for your future is their gift to you, and your reluctance to accept it says more about you than them. You hear her unspoken words in your head: You think you’ll worry? You’ll be married to your pretty new wife. You have your new job. You won’t have a spare minute to worry.
What she does say is, “Besides, you’ll still be around to come by and visit, right? You’re not leaving town.”
“Right, but I’ll be married. And with my job…”
“I know,” she says and shrugs, waving one hand in the air as if in surrender, or good humor, struggling to fasten her seatbelt with the other.
“You better get going,” she says. “Those frozen things are going to melt in this heat.”
You made up your mind a long time ago that it wouldn’t matter if your parents didn’t like your fiancé. But they do. They are impressed that she’s a professional woman–a pharmacist–who will move to this town and take a job with the local hospital when you marry. Your mother keeps jealousy at arm’s length, clearly wanting to like the woman her only child plans to marry. Suzanne is patient and pleasant, trying to be helpful when she visits, taking care, literally, not to bump into her, sometimes practically jumping out of the way as your mother darts around the kitchen or dining room, picking up magazines and mail and dish towels from one chair and turning around to put them on another. Your father is uncharacteristically talkative when she is around, animated, you think, by Suzanne’s beauty and light-hearted flirtatiousness. He smiles and makes elaborately generous gestures, as if he were a benevolent maître d. Suzanne smiles at you across the room.
Later, as you watch TV, your parents in bed, your hand down Suzanne’s blouse but not yet inside her bra, you say, “Thanks for being so tolerant with them.” In the flickering light of the television screen, she turns to face you, lifting herself up from the couch, trapping your hand in an awkward twist. You try to read her face in the television’s random sequence of light and darkness.
“Tim, your parents are who they are. I don’t like it when you talk as if they embarrass you.”
Of course, you think. You can say that. Because your parents are who they are.
Which is pretty much the opposite of your parents. Suzanne’s father–Kingston, not a first name you’d find among your relatives–is a partner in a real estate agency. He wears slacks with sharp creases and flared bottoms, starched dress shirts and a tie clip that bears the name of his company. He always seems to be in motion, even when standing still, plunging his hands into his pockets to jiggle coins or car keys, shifting from one foot to the other. He drives a big, ugly Buick the color of beef broth. Suzanne’s mother is tall and wears her dark hair short. Unlike her husband, she never appears nervous, moving at her own deliberate pace regardless of what surrounds her, an ability that some tall women develop to accommodate their height.
“I know that, Suzanne. I’m not embarrassed.” You don’t want her to be angry with you. You want to get back to the clasps on her bra. “I just meant that they’re trying really hard. I know they want you to feel at home here.” Nearly all the weekend visits have been at her house. This is a rare exception, and it’s you who is trying hard.
“I do feel at home, Tim. Really.”
And you kiss her, a soft kiss, but full of urgency.
You work in the General Office Building downtown, one of the tallest structures in the city’s old skyline. When you enter the building, you sometimes remember a day when you were sixteen, your driver’s license just a few weeks old and already burning a hole in your wallet, and it was a big deal to drive into town to go to the library. An easy trip, and you decided to park on a nearby street that ran alongside the G.O. building. Even now, you remember how long it took you to tuck the big Plymouth between two cars, backing in again and again, angling and straightening a foot or two at a time. And when you finally got out to slip the nickels into the meter, literally wiping the sweat from your forehead, you heard applause, yes, clapping, and looked up to the third floor of the tall building where a dozen men had been watching you, lined up in a breezeway in their short-sleeved white shirts and skinny ties.
Startled, mortified, but somehow recognizing the comedy of the scene, you surprised yourself: you bent from the waist in a deep bow, and the clapping started anew.
Now you walk through that same breezeway, and you can stop to look down to the street where you parked, pick out the metered spot where you struggled. Things have changed–there’s a new delicatessen across the street, and some of the shirts are pale yellow or pale blue and the ties are wider now, with paisley and floral prints. But you can still easily picture a row of men lining up to watch some poor kid straining to parallel park his father’s big old car. And now you can picture yourself among them.
This is the Bicentennial year. It seems like fireworks fill the sky every night of the summer, Bicentennial stuff everywhere: on TV, in magazines, the ads filled with corny themes, using stars and stripes and cartoon drawings of George Washington and Ben Franklin to sell everything from mattresses to cars. Get revolutionary savings! It’s a deal two hundred years in the making!
You came back home to work. But uncles and old neighbors still working shifts at the open hearth and the rod and wire mill–men who handle and roll steel and make freight cars–never seem to connect your job with the job of making steel. Their own sons are in the mills or the mines, or in the army, or driving truck, or doing nothing at all. There are no engineers among their sons, no managers-in-training. You are the first.
Metallurgy might as well be alchemy.
These men don’t love their work–some would tell you they hate it–but they can’t help being connected to it. It’s a cliché to say it’s in their blood, you think. It’s not that poetic. They love the union more than the company. It is, nonetheless, what they know–the hot molten steel shaped into bars and beams and wire rods, the railway cars assembled in rows of gaping mouths ready for coal and spools of wire. But you are not as naïve as they think. You, too, know something about steel. You understand that making steel is mostly about making money, mostly about greed and power. You also know that it doesn’t matter what anybody thinks. You simply cannot imagine life in the valley without coal, without steel.
There is a family reunion where you eat halupki and potato salad and drink bottles of Iron City beer pulled from tubs of ice. Your uncles are there–Phil, with a limp he’s had as long as you can recall, and a quick anger that seems to give off real heat, stoking a burning redness in his face and eyes; Stan, with hair that turned snow white when he was still in his thirties, and a giant belly which looks like it covers a massive balloon that inflates a little more for each summer picnic; Baggy, whose nickname you’ve always assumed is ironic–he’s the tallest, thinnest uncle; and quiet Freddy, whose composure and good manners make him a ladies’ man. Stories about his women have been recycled for years. He is your favorite uncle, although you recognize that his courtesy towards you, his polite interest–he’s the only one among the uncles who asks you specific questions about your work–may just be part of the charm he shows everyone.
Talking to you, the uncles measure their words, and turn away from you without ceremony. They don’t shield their talk; they just don’t include you. You are not union.
“Fucking Jap steel.” It’s Phil, the redness in his face rising like a thermometer reading of the amount of beer he’s drunk. “Fucking foreigners and their cheap steel. Don’t pay their workers shit. Governments make it easy for them. Not fucking fair.”
Stan, the redness of his own face a stark contrast to the whiteness of his hair, reaches out to grab Phil’s arm, and nods toward the kids playing with Frisbees and plastic trucks nearby.
Phil waves his hand in disgust. “Yeah, yeah.”
You know they want to spend more time bitching about the competition from foreign steel and arguing about whether the union will protect them, so you move off to find your parents, who are fussing with your grandmother in her wheelchair, trying to arrange her alongside a picnic table while she issues directions and waves her hands as if in control or exasperation. You sit next to her, talking about your fiancé, explaining that she has to work and isn’t able to be here. Your grandmother has been in bed or in a wheelchair for years. But you have other memories of her as well; they unwind like a reel of old film. There are flickering images of her on her living room couch, grandchildren assembled around her, the camera’s flash exploding in the mirror behind them; pictures of her posing stiffly at Easter, wearing a wide-brimmed, flowered hat; or carrying platters of food to the table at Christmas. You do the math between forkfuls of baked beans and pierogies, and it strikes you once again that she wasn’t much older than your mother now, when she started having people take care of her.
Suddenly, a child’s scream splits the humid early evening air. Kids’ voices, the laughter and shouts of outdoor play, the teases and taunts and arguments, have been a backdrop all day, but this is different. The scream turns into high-pitched shrieking sobs, and a lot of people at the picnic stop conversations in mid-sentence, stop clearing paper plates and plastic spoons from the tables, stop laying down tricks in friendly pinochle games, and look in the direction of the cries.
They are looking in the direction of Phil.
“Oh my God,” your mother says, and stands to stare. A few people begin to move, half-curious, half-concerned, not running, but almost. You say to your mother, “I’ll see if it’s serious. You stay here with Grandma.”
The shrieks are coming from a small girl, maybe six, who’s on the ground, surrounded by adults, including Freddy and a man and woman you take to be her parents. There is bright blood on her face and on her blue and white striped top. It’s a lot of blood, and it startles and frightens you. Women are calling for towels and ice, and pleading to give the little girl some air. There is a tussle as Baggy and other men struggle to hold onto Phil, who wants to go to where the girl is sobbing. You stay on the edge of this, afraid of Phil, wary of his drunken swinging arms, and you have to talk to a number of aunts and cousins to figure out what happened. You can picture it as they talk: Phil, propped up on the top of a picnic table, shit-faced drunk, starting to throw his empty beer bottles overhand, with force, aiming for a nearby garbage can, the little girl darting unknowingly into a bottle’s errant trajectory, the heavy brown glass catching her in the forehead, right above her left eye, a gash that floods with blood immediately, and drops her like she’s been shot. The sight of so much of her own blood shocks her as much as the pain in her head
Her father, who’s had a few beers himself, wants to go after Phil, and the men who have been drawn to the commotion lace their arms around Phil and the father, keeping them apart. Amid a lot of shouting and arm waving, the girl is carried to a car to be taken to the hospital for x-rays and stitches, and Phil is wrestled away from the picnic, cursed at by his brothers, and eventually driven home. You report back to your parents and grandmother, going easy on the details about the amount of blood, but slamming Phil for being too drunk and careless.
Your mother holds her hand to her chest, shaken by the story, watching people at nearby tables who are trying to re-start the picnic without appearing indifferent to what has happened. There is a strained look on her face that you don’t see very often. Your father snorts with disgust. “Phil’s just a crazy drunkard,” he says with uncharacteristic anger. “He needs his ass kicked.” Your mother turns her sorrowful, worried gaze to him. You know she cannot, and does not want to, excuse her brother Phil, but she looks at your father for a long time, her hand still near her neck, and says, “We’ll say some extra prayers for little Alice tonight.” She nods toward your grandmother. “And for Phil.”
You survive the long-distance romance. You survive planning the wedding (“Hell, this isn’t a royal wedding,” you say a dozen times to whomever is around when you get pissed off about the squabbles over the invitation list, the band, the honeymoon). You survive the wedding ceremony: Suzanne beautiful in a long, beaded gown, her black hair piled in a graceful array of curls, her blue eyes glistening, you and your groomsmen resplendent in pearl gray tuxedos and ruffled shirts, your mind drifting off during the priest’s sermon about a wife being the rib of Adam, your fingers shaking a little with the ring, “Timothy, you may now kiss the bride.” You think things go pretty well. Some of it is a blur to you, but Suzanne is happy, and your parents are smiling, taking directions from the photographer and from Kingston and Judy. You survive the bridal dance which is near the end of the reception, Suzanne’s maid of honor collecting the cash in an apron, the ones and fives mounting up as a train of people twirl your new wife for a few seconds and kiss her cheek, your best man handing out little plastic shot glasses of whiskey, the bridal dance song droning on, da da da da da da da, and then there you are, finally rushing from a corner of the room to charge the circle of guests, pushing through the ring of linked arms to reach the exhausted Suzanne and carry her off, the music and applause pounding in your ears.
It’s late in the summer of 1976, and, sharp young engineer, man on the rise, you have brought home your sharp new wife.
What comes next is sooner than you planned, but Suzanne’s parents are insistent. So you buy a modest place in the hilltop suburbs, a nice Cape Cod, with gladioli and crown vetch. You think you really should wait (“There’s a lot of talk about foreign steel, things could get tight”), but your father-in-law helps out a lot, getting in touch with the realtors himself, coaching you on making an offer, and you end up getting a good deal. Part of their wedding gift is some of the down payment. “It’s a good investment,” you hear again and again. “It’s a great starter home.” Everyone working from the same script. You take on a few home repairs. You drive a practical but shiny white Chevy, and decide you’ll learn to play golf.
Before long, your family seems a liability. Your wife frets at the front window, watching Grandma arrive in a babushka and dark coat to her ankles. Your mother will smile like a patient saint observing a vow of silence, and your father will toss back your best sipping bourbon, swallow his beer, and complain about the Pirates, much as he has for twenty years.
And each time your family shows up, they wait too long just inside your open front door, wiping their feet, full of a great awkward courtesy, as though strangers crowding a waiting room, everyone endlessly getting up to offer each other a seat.
You’re deep into the winter of ’77, a new year just days away, but offering little in the way of hope. Despite the cold, despite the snow falling thick and fast, you take a midnight drive, Suzanne asleep and not even aware you’re gone. You head for Olson Avenue, the roads down the hill from the suburb congested with snow.
The bottom seems to be falling out. All of a sudden it’s big aluminum and small cars. Hubris locks up the industry, and the valley locks you in, sealing you off from the future.
You know what the historians will say: They should have seen it coming. Yeah, yeah. But this year was more than that. It was absolutely insane. It was like God was personally pissed off at us. Twenty feet of snow in January took out a whole plant. Fires in some of the mines in February. Killer floods in July took out more mills.
Olson Avenue is practically deserted. The snow is diabolical in the shafts of streetlight. The churches and bars and stores are just gloomy shapes in the corners of your eyes. The headlights of an oncoming car are erratic cones of light.
Plastic and aluminum? Hell, the company can come back from that, right? Thousands of people out of work already. Bouncing back will mean downsizing. Nasty bean counting. And we just bought the house last year. Her parents kept pushing us. Suzanne’s job is fine, but she’s nervous.
Your father says he’s not worried about his pension, counting the months till it’s time. He thinks maybe they’ll let guys like him take early retirement, save some money.
You slide to a stop at a traffic light. You look down the long avenue, the bright discs of the traffic lights the only color in this world of unrelenting snow, the night a deep shadowy gray barely visible through the manic white flakes. You roll down your window and the snow pours in, as if it would fill your car if you continued to sit here, watching the color change from red to green to yellow and red again. The snow makes no sound. You feel the cold flakes on your face, and although the signal is red, you press the gas pedal hard, the back of the car fishtailing, tires spinning, heading toward what’s beyond the last lights on the avenue. You can’t see them, but you know the stacks are there, no longer blazing with the flames of your boyhood, but still on the horizon, reaching up through the snow into the silent and unyielding sky.
James Gyure lives, writes, and makes a passable red wine in western Pennsylvania, where he had a long career as a college administrator. Recent work appears in Hot Metal Bridge, Tahoma Literary Review, Gravel, Two Cities Review and elsewhere. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His current project is a cycle of linked short stories and flash fiction.