Authors: Brett Ellen Block
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #General, #Allegheny River Valley (Pa. And N.Y.), #Allegheny Mountains Region - History, #Allegheny Mountains Region, #Iron and Steel Workers, #Bildungsromans, #Polish American Families, #Sagas, #Mothers and daughters, #Domestic fiction
For my mother and father,
I WAS ONCE TOLD that the distance between a lie…
IT WAS THE YEAR that the girl drowned in the…
THE PRIEST HAS BROUGHT THE FUNERAL to a close. I…
WAS ONCE TOLD
that the distance between a lie and the truth is like the distance between thunder and rain—the latter is never far behind. But now, even as darkening clouds crest the hillside above the cemetery where my mother will soon be buried, I know it will not rain, not today.
It is almost winter and the grass is brittle underfoot, though it remains a vibrant, almost vehement, shade of green. My mother’s simple coffin rests on planks of wood, suspended above her open grave, while a handful of mourners gather along either side. The few elderly men and women stand around solemnly, unspeaking, like people waiting for a bus. I recognize no one, but to them, I am the stranger.
“Are you the daughter?” a voice asks.
It is the priest. His skin looks pale against his long purple vestments and his back is severely hunched beneath his overcoat. It is as if years of ministering to the people of this town have buffeted him into the humble pose, the way a tree can be permanently bent by the wind.
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I am. I’m sorry I—”
“No matter. You’re here now,” he says, with the firm manner of a doctor rather than the kind or careful demeanor usually ascribed to a priest. That may be the very reason my mother chose him to perform her service.
I imagine her planning this funeral the way one might plan a wedding. Making a guest list, choosing the church, handpicking songs for the organist to play. More important still would have been the location of her burial, Saint Ladislaus cemetery. Set on a low knuckle of the Allegheny Mountains, it is an old community cemetery, full of generations of coal miners and steelworkers who saved what little money they earned to buy marble tombs and detailed headstones, the only memorial to their existence they would ever have. What no one knew when the cemetery was founded was that an underground stream flowed deep beneath the property and, over time, the moving water has buckled the land. The once-smooth sprawl of earth is now rolling with knolls, the grass undulating like sand dunes. All of the delicately carved headstones list and pitch as if riding a heady sea. The sculptures of angels with their eyes upturned to heaven are now tipped and gazing off like bored schoolgirls. Undermined by what secretly pulsed below, this cemetery speaks more about the condition of life than that of death.
“You made it.”
I turn and find my brother, Martin, plodding up the dirt path toward the grave site. Were it not for his voice, I wouldn’t have known him. His face looks as if all expression has been beaten out of it. His clothes are rumpled like he has just been in a fight and was lucky to have escaped unscathed.
Martin hugs me roughly. In that brief embrace, I can smell the liquor on him.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he says.
His eyes linger on my face for a moment, a flicker of grateful recollection, then he pulls away, uncomfortable being so close. I know better than to ask him how he’s been. It will only invite an argument about how I haven’t called or written or visited, about how I have abandoned my old life, this town and him. It is neither the time nor the place for a conversation about my failings. To spare him the silence, I ask softly, “Who are these people?”
“Couldn’t say for sure. All from the church, I s’pose.”
We are my mother’s only living relatives, the only remnants of her family.
“Priest’s about to start,” Martin says, ending the conversation before either one of us can say something that might make us feel more than we have to.
I approach my mother’s coffin and Martin positions himself at my side, though he is more in front of me than anything else. There is a rip in his jacket that starts at the shoulder and carves down over the ribs, a jagged gash that makes it seem as if my brother has been stabbed in the back. The long, fraying tear is a reminder of why I am here and why I left.
What I know about my brother’s life now is scant, almost cryptic, like the bottom of a page torn out of a long, inscrutable
book. He hasn’t worked in years and has never married. For him, home is a room in a boardinghouse and the only regular thing about his life is the welfare checks he receives monthly in the mail. Decades of heavy drinking have taken their toll. It is as though the liquor has literally diluted my brother’s blood, leaving his spirit limp, like a bedsheet on a clothesline in a gale. He is not the person I once knew nor, I doubt, will he ever be again.
The priest clears his throat and bows his head ceremoniously. Martin drops his eyes, then buries his hands in his pockets, hiding them from the chill of the rising wind. It appears to be an effort for him to stand straight. I can’t be sure if he is drunk or if it is true sorrow that has rendered him unsteady. When he was a child, my brother was precocious, eager, resolute. He was the child I would have liked to be. But since that one spring in our childhood, when everything in our small world unhinged itself from what we knew it to be, my brother has never been the same. From then on, Martin was a ship set adrift, never able to maintain course. Years later, his drinking served only to snap the few sails he had onboard. I fear that with my mother’s death Martin’s ship will run aground and become hopelessly moored on shore, never to set sail again. It is a fear that stings my heart.
“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” the priest intones, then he repeats himself in Polish:
Imie ojciec i syn i swiety duch.
I understand the words instantly, though I have not heard the language in years. All of the mourners reply with a sonorous refrain:
I pozwalac wieczny swiatlo jasnia nadje.
The meaning floods my mind:
And let perpetual light shine on the dead
The priest crosses himself. One woman dabs the corners of her eyes, preempting any tears. Behind a neighboring headstone lies a roll of sod tied with twine. The breeze rustles the bound blades, leaving them quivering. It is the grass that once covered my mother’s grave. The notion that this tidy bundle will soon be unfurled as a final, burgeoning shroud sends a pang of sadness through me, but I do not have the will to cry.
I feel my mother’s death the way one might feel a cut on the tip of a finger. The pain is not severe, but it makes me aware of that tiny stretch of skin and all that touches it, awakening the memory of what I have long ignored. I alone know the reason my mother lies here in this very spot and that knowledge makes gravity seem somehow lighter. It is as if my body is full of air and I am floating silently behind the mourners, like a balloon tied to my brother’s wrist, weightless but not free.
The site of my mother’s grave is as deliberate as a kiss. Situated atop a lonely rise, it has a view of the river and the town below as well as of a potter’s field, which lies in the shadow of the mountains at the edge of Saint Ladislaus property. It is a pretty vista marbled with fields and tracks of fir trees, and it is almost picturesque in spite of the other cemetery, a swath of land dotted with tiny dimples of stone.
My mother’s most precious secret lies buried in that flat, unhallowed field, her lone treasure so long entombed. From this spot, she will always have it close and in her sights. For this reason alone, I do not grieve for her, only for myself and all that was never mine and never will be.
The priest continues his eulogy, but I lose the somber words in the sound of the wind.
T WAS THE YEAR
that the girl drowned in the river. She was the first that spring in 1941. The opening casualty of the Allegheny’s fierce current was usually a boy, caught in the coursing tide while trying to impress his friends, or some fisherman in a rowboat who’d been swept over the dam and pinned beneath the falls. But this time it was a young girl of five who had waded out into the fast water to show her brothers that she was as brave as they were. Her body was found a mile downstream. Afterward, the steel mill’s whistle blew eight times, the way it always did whenever somebody drowned. That was how we knew.
I cannot recall the girl’s name, though I can remember her face. The town of Hyde Bend was not large, just over two thou
sand, and most of the children attended Saint Ladislaus Catholic school. Though I was twelve that year and many grades above her, I could not help but notice the girl in the school halls. She had light brown hair and a delicate face that seemed to be made only for smiling. Sister Bartholomew, the head nun, could often be heard chastising her for giggling after class. “What are you smiling about, girl?” the sister would snap, her Polish accent bowing the words. “If God wanted you to smile all the time, your mouth wouldn’t be able to frown.” Despite her reproaches, the nun’s remarks could never wipe the grin from the girl’s lips for long. She was, it appeared, incapable of any permanent unhappiness.
The day after the girl’s body was fished from the river, the nuns made us all say a decade of the rosary for her, one Our Father, and ten Hail Marys. Then they warned us not to play by the river, that doing so invited trouble. It was possible to beckon bad luck, of that they were sure. We had heard these warnings before, though they did little to dissuade us. The river was our one and only temptation.
A half-mile strip of the great Allegheny ran along the far edge of Hyde Bend, and its banks were too enticing to resist. They were a place of adventure, ripe for a thousand games with sticks and rocks and hollow reeds, the toys even the poorest of us could afford. Although the water was thick and silty, making it the color of tarnished silver, and the temperature was a constant, burning cold, there was no lure like its shores. We called the river’s edge “the beach,” though it was merely a spit of land covered in mud and slippery stones. Still, it was ours, the only definition of a beach we knew.
To get to the river, you had to brave the teetering wooden
stairway that led down nearly twenty feet to the bank. The wood creaked and groaned louder with every passing winter, yet the stairs remained, more a testament to our need to be connected to the river than the strength of the stairs’ construction. Like the River Styx, the black border dividing hell from the land of the living, our river was all that separated us from what we did not know. As a child, I could not be sure which side I was on. And it took years for me to figure it out.
HE CLAPBOARD HOUSES
that were built along the river were considered prime real estate in spite of the fact that, by virtue of their very location, those homes caught the brunt of the biting wind that came off the river from early fall until far into spring. Nevertheless it remained a privilege to live by the water, like a front-row seat. So if it was cold, those people were proud to lay claim to getting cold first. The men who owned those homes were not the sort who wore coveralls or hard hats to work. They were the ones who wore clean, pressed shirts and wool suits. These people were the minority in Hyde Bend. They were the ruling class, families whose names I knew but at whose houses neither my family nor myself would ever be welcome.
River Road, as it was aptly named, marked the town’s perimeter on one side and at the other end was Field Street, which, also appropriately enough, faced a lettuce field that had long gone fallow. Field Street was Hyde Bend’s main drag. Stores and businesses lined the road, while just beyond the backs of the buildings
on one side a wide expanse of weedy land stretched for miles and petered out into nothing. Bracketing the far side of town was Consolidated Steel, a hulking mill that churned out massive slabs of metal as consistently as it churned out sooty smoke into the sky. On the opposite side of Hyde Bend squatted a long, low plant called General Salt. Though the name was vague, everybody knew what was made in the factory; they produced salt-based chemicals, mainly pesticides. Years later the plant would go on to create a top-selling product, a fine, pink powder known by the initials DDT.
The three towering smokestacks from the mill and the rows of chimneys that topped the plant were the tallest things for miles except for the enormous neon cross that stood on top of the mountain across the river. The cross had been erected in 1938, a gift to Saint Ladislaus church and the people of Hyde Bend from both of the factories that bookended the town. The towering cross stayed lit from five in the afternoon until five in the morning, its peak rising high into the sky above the mountain, a constant, glowing reminder that nothing was higher.
Hyde Bend was an enclave of Polish immigrants, entirely Catholic. Most knew at least a little English; however, since everyone’s first tongue was Polish, that was all that was heard. Signs in store windows were written in English. Inside, Polish was what was spoken. It was as though the whole town was pretending to be something it wasn’t, keeping up an American facade in order to retain the privileges that came with the country. Yet the customs, the traditions, the food, and the morality, they were vestiges carried straight from the villages outside Warsaw and Kraków.
When it came to outsiders, Hyde Bend was as friendly as a fist—hard and tight-knit. Those who moved into town for jobs at
the mill or the plant but who weren’t either Polish or Catholic soon moved away. They relocated to neighboring towns and took the bus run by the steel mill in to work. Visiting strangers never stayed and outsiders who commuted in for their jobs at the factories stuck together once they got there. They sat at their own tables during lunchtime and kept to themselves. They had little choice. The men from Hyde Bend purposefully spoke only in Polish on the job. It was their own form of segregation, a way of staking their claim and asserting their position. It was the one slice of power they had and they took as much pleasure in it as pride.
The town was named for the unforgiving crook in the river on which it sat. The shallow, rocky shoals below the water had ripped the bottoms from so many boats and steamers that they no longer passed that way. Even after the dam was built to regulate the river’s depth, few would attempt to navigate our cursed corner of the Allegheny. The reputation of Hyde Bend was sealed simply by its location.
The town was laid out in a tidy rectangle, and it hardly seemed like coincidence that there was only one exit onto the road that met the highway, making Hyde Bend a sort of cul-de-sac, a bottle with only one way in and one way out. Stocky, brick one-story houses and saltbox cottages covered in pine siding lined the four main streets that connected each end of town. Most of the homes were painted white—the least expensive color—though they never remained that way. Because of the soot from the mill and the never-ending wind off the water, the crisp, white paint quickly turned gray. Some people would go to the trouble of washing their houses by hand come summer, but the paint would soon fade back
to a dull shade of dust. It was as if the color white was unattainable, if not impossible, in Hyde Bend.
There were no trees in town. They had all been cut down to make room for houses when the mill went up. There were no lawns either, not even a narrow collar of grass at the sidewalk. There was no room for nature it seemed, not even in the town’s margins. Without trees, birds were a rare sight, except for the occasional seagull coasting on the breeze and the crows, which stood constant watch on the phone wires, always scouting for scraps and carrion. The only time we would see birds was in flight or when they would briefly settle on the ground, but we never heard them sing, so the idea of having a bird as a pet was a fantasy for most of us children. Boys would form hunting parties to try and trick the crows down from the lines with bits of bread. When one came down to feed, the boys would attack, hurling themselves at the crow, arms outstretched. But the birds were too quick. They always got away. It didn’t matter though, because none of us had a cage in which to keep the prized catch. The real thrill was the chance to touch one of the birds, to touch something that had the ability to leave that place, to leave and never return.
ETWEEN THE FOUR MAIN ROADS
that crisscrossed Hyde Bend were three alleys. They had once been merely paths, but as the town grew, strings of shacks cropped up along the alleyways, squeezing in like weeds within the town’s cracks. These places became home to Hyde Bend’s poorest residents. The first alley was
simply called “First” and it was closest to River Road, so even though it was an alley, the people there took pride in the relative position, as though the proximity somewhat softened their circumstances. The second alley was one street farther in. And the last alley, “Third,” was slumped up behind the Silver Slipper Tavern and the police station. The unpaved alley was flanked by a row of ramshackle, two-room apartments that listed up against each other, as close as teeth. There were no gutters, so mud was a virtual constant. Trash was collected only at the far end of the alley, so the lingering smell of garbage was as persistent as the mud. Most townspeople often avoided that alley altogether and forbade their children from crossing through even as a shortcut. Third was the opposite of haunted. It was achingly empty despite its inhabitants, a place to which everything in Hyde Bend that was wrong, unacceptable, or ugly sifted down. That was where we lived—me, my brother, my father, and my mother.
My father called the stunted clapboard shack where we lived “our house,” though it was closer to a shed than anything else, like a place for tools, inanimate objects, certainly not a place meant to be lived in. The walls were stuffed with newspaper for insulation, and at night, when the wind wasn’t whistling through the gaps in the siding, we could hear mice nesting in between the boards.
Like much of the rest of Hyde Bend, most everything on Third was gray. The shingles, the stoops, and the tar-paper roofs were all covered with a layer of soot. Things seemed an even darker shade of gray on Third than anyplace else though, as if all the color had been leeched out by the cold and the stench. However, there was one tiny patch of dirt from which life sprang. It was a small rose
garden with a few struggling bushes that, come summer, were all crowned by a single, vivid flower. The roses, as with everything else on Third, were owned by the woman we knew only as Swatka Pani. It was Polish for “sweet lady.”
Though the nuns had always told us that no picture could ever do justice to the devil, I was convinced that he couldn’t be a far cry from Swatka Pani. She did not speak, she hissed, and she didn’t walk, she thundered. Because she was a widow, the only color Swatka Pani ever wore was black, and she had wiry hair that she dyed a rusty red, but the color usually grew out, leaving gray roots, so she looked like she was aging, transforming, before our very eyes. Though she was only in her late forties, Swatka Pani walked with a cane. Some unknown infirmity had stiffened her hips and made her shoulders cave. She had also gone deaf in one ear. Despite her ailments, Swatka Pani had the keen ability to whip around in an instant, tipping her head to tune in with her good ear. The fierce, feral motion was almost more frightening than anything she could say or do. Like the rest of the children on Third, I feared even a glance from her.
Swatka Pani’s husband, long dead, had left her as landlord of the apartments on Third, a vast fortune in those days, especially for a woman, and she reigned over the shambling alley like a tyrant. There were no toilets in the apartments, only outhouses between every other building, and Swatka Pani would charge extra for using the toilets and even more if she found them too filthy for her taste. The families that shared them would then be charged a fine. “A slop tax,” she called it. Swatka Pani was also merciless when it came to the rent, always threatening to throw out anyone who didn’t pay on time. It was her habit to bang on doors with her
cane at one
. on the day the rent was due, shouting, “
Drisiaj-zaplata mnie co ty winiensz mi
It meant, “It’s time. It’s time to pay what you owe.”
That is what the devil will say to me if I am a sinner
, I would think whenever I heard her speak that phrase.
A sin was like a debt, and a debt to Swatka Pani was indeed like a debt to the devil. She would always collect, one way or the other.
Everybody on Third could recount the story of the man named Lubiak who’d lived at the end of the alley. After his wife had died in childbirth, he was inconsolable. Lubiak would not eat or sleep or work. All he did was pace the street outside Saint Ladislaus church where he and his wife had been married. When the man’s rent came due and he could not pay it, Swatka Pani simply smiled at him and quietly went away. The next day, she waited on her porch until Lubiak left for the church, then she used her key to go into his apartment. She paid a few of the older boys from the alley to break all of the man’s furniture then throw the splintered pieces into the alley and grind them into the mud. It didn’t matter that the man might have been able to sell some of the furniture to get her the money. All that mattered was that Lubiak and the rest of us learned the consequences of a sin against Swatka Pani. For her, the lesson was worth the sum of his rent. No one ever saw Lubiak after that nor did we ever learn what became of him. However, he remained in our minds, a punished spirit that revisited Third each month and spoke to us in the rapping of Swatka Pani’s cane on our doors.
Swatka Pani loved nothing except her money and feared nothing—except the river.
Her fear and hatred were born nearly two decades before my birth, yet everyone in Hyde Bend knew the tale. It had been handed down as both folklore and fact. For years, Swatka Pani would go to the riverbank to collect dirt for her rosebushes. She claimed that the dirt was special, that it was what made her roses so radiant and hearty. Something from those inimical waters nourished the flowers and, with inconceivable alchemy, gave them life, and Swatka Pani refused to go without it. Whenever she went to the riverside for her precious dirt, she would always take her young son, Joseph, who was a toddler at the time. While she filled her buckets, Swatka Pani allowed the boy to stand at the water’s edge and play with a wooden boat she had bought him, a handsome hand-carved ship that was painted red and topped with a paper sail and a string for guiding it. One day, Swatka Pani turned her back for too long, spent a moment more filling her buckets, and when she finally looked up from her digging, Joseph was being swept downstream, his head sinking beneath the water’s surface while the red toy boat bobbed along after him. Joseph’s body was never found, but the boat was. The river had released it onto the shore and into a tangled nest of branches, safe and intact.