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
In school I had been taught that a priest was not only a man of
God, he was the closest thing to God on earth that I would ever know. Like God, he could listen to our prayers, but a priest could answer in a human voice. To me, Father Svitek was as cold as the statues he made sure my mother scrubbed clean, and I found it hard to believe, if not ironic, that God would consider such a man kin. Even as a child, I was well acquainted with the concept of irony. Though I didn’t know it by name, irony was the thread that ran through everything the nuns taught us. Faith was a double-edged dagger that only the brave embraced. God loved us unconditionally. However, it took courage, if not madness, to love Him back.
The Book of Saints
told tales of righteous men having their eyes put out. The tongues of the pious were cut out at the root. Injustice, like irony, was commonplace, a consequence of living. So it seemed fitting that Father Svitek was, presumably, as close to God as I might ever get and it didn’t seem unfair that my parents spent their days scratching out a living cleaning two of the most important places in Hyde Bend while we lived in a place that would never be anything but dirty.
BOUT A MONTH
after the little girl drowned in the river, my mother woke us early one morning and told us to dress as fast as we could. She left my father’s food on the table covered in a cloth and hurried us into our clothes.
“What’s happening?” Martin asked as my mother forced him into his school shirt and buttoned it quickly. Martin was seven that year, though his tiny body and spindly limbs made him look even younger.
“Your father’s still at the Silver Slipper and I’m going to get him,” she answered flatly. Her anger had boiled down to fact.
I pulled on my sweater and, just as I’d gotten it over my head, my mother was on me with a comb, running it through my hair
and yanking out the knots. This was a ritual for her, and I’d given up protesting. She would stand in front of me, carefully part my hair and tuck it behind my ears as if I was incapable of doing it on my own. She never braided my hair or put any ribbons in it, but there was a certain way she wanted me to look, one in which I had no say. Once she was satisfied with my appearance, my mother would stop and admire my face and hair without looking into my eyes, as if I were a mannequin she was dressing for a shop window.
We had one mirror in the house, over the basin in the washroom, but I rarely stood before it. I knew what I looked like and I knew I was not pretty. Not like other girls I’d seen. And not like my mother. Even though she wore her weariness like a heavy mask, it could not blunt her fair features or hide the hint of the flexibility for a smile in her lips. In spite of her old clothes and the kerchiefs that covered her hair, my mother was still a woman that men glanced at and admired. I saw them do it. I also saw them look at me, only briefly. I did not share that incalculable currency of beauty with my mother, though I found that a comfort. I could conceal myself, go unnoticed. My plainness was a kind of camouflage, one that allowed me to decide if I wanted to exist or not. Yet when it came to my mother, there was no hiding.
“You’ll take your brother to school this morning,” she instructed, wrapping a scarf over her head with a flourish, then knotting it under her chin as if she were strapping on a helmet.
“And hold his hand when you walk with him. The roads are slippery from the rain.”
Because my mother had woken us unexpectedly and hustled us into our clothes, it was only when we were walking out the door that I noticed that her painting of the Black Madonna was gone.
“Where’s your picture?” I asked, surprising myself as much as my mother with the question. Her face deflated into a wounded stare.
“Yeah,” Martin chimed in. “Where did it go?”
In that agonizing instant, I sensed that my father must have sold the Black Madonna. Most likely, it was for money to buy alcohol. The realization made my chest feel like it was filled with sand.
“Come on,” my mother told us, her voice wavering just above a whisper. “It’s time to leave.”
Outside, a steady drizzle was falling, making the air feel dense, almost solid. I took Martin’s hand and together we watched my mother walk toward the end of the alley, the mud sucking at her boots as she went, her shoulders hunched against the chill. As she neared the corner of the alley, I willed her to look back at us, maybe even to wave, something that would take the edge off the morning. She didn’t. My mother rounded the corner and disappeared, leaving the road empty except for the growing puddles, as if she had never been there at all.
“Should we follow her?” Martin asked.
“No,” I said. “We can’t go where she’s going.”
The Silver Slipper was open twenty-four hours a day to cater to all the different shifts that clocked in and out of the mill and the salt plant. The tavern was owned by the Pierwsza brothers, Edgar and Clement, who took turns manning the bar. Both were sturdy, wide-faced men, though neither stood far above five feet. What they lacked in height, the brothers made up for in menace. Fights would often break out in the Silver Slipper, but if either of the brothers was forced to get involved, someone would end up needing a doctor. They were notorious for keeping baseball bats behind
the bar, but these were no ordinary bats. They had hammered nails into the ends, and the brothers were said to come out swinging if there was any sort of commotion. Most men knew that if they wanted to brawl, it was in their best interest to do so outside.
Though the Silver Slipper was almost as inhospitable and dangerous as the steel mill, it was the only place where my father could go to see his brother, William. An undeclared but bitter war had been waged years ago between my father’s family and my mother, and though I was never told the reasons behind it, it was clear that this was why we were never allowed to see our relatives. When Martin was still a baby and I had learned that the other children in my school had cousins, I asked my parents if I had cousins too. My mother and father swapped a fast glance, then he stormed out of the apartment. Afterward, my mother pinched me on the arm and hissed at me, “Don’t ask those kind of questions. Do you want to start trouble?”
I never raised the subject again. Once Martin was old enough to start wondering, I told him of the incident and warned him not to bring up our relatives. Normally, such a suggestion wouldn’t have been enough to curtail his curiosity, but something in the way I recounted the event must have convinced him that his questions weren’t worth the risk.
To talk of family was forbidden in our house, though occasionally the topic would creep into my parents’ conversation. What I could glean from those exchanges was meager, a threadbare history patched together with scraps of dialogue and innuendo. For my mother, love and loss were synonymous. They could have been the same word. Her father had died during her youth. A heart attack sent him to his grave when my mother was just half my age.
Then her younger brother, Stephen, died a year later of scarlet fever. Shortly afterward, my mother lost her own mother to pneumonia. The litany of loss spanned most of her lifetime. My mother would never speak of the deaths, not any of them, not to lament them nor to question them. I couldn’t help but think that God had turned against my mother, that He had forsaken her. But I had been taught that you didn’t have to be a sinner to suffer undue misfortune. That was simply our lot. Still, I wondered if it was luck or some other force that had conspired to keep the people she cared for from her.
My mother had watched each member of her family consigned to a grave, then she had buried each of their memories along with them. Though all of my father’s siblings were still alive, his brother and two sisters, he saw his brother only from time to time and that was at the Silver Slipper, a place my mother would not normally set foot in. There seemed to be an unspoken deal between my mother and father—he could see his family as long as the rest of us didn’t. For my father, it was an unfair arrangement, but he agreed to it nonetheless.
In those weeks that April after the little girl drowned, things had begun to change. My father hadn’t been coming home for breakfast. We would hear the mill’s whistle blow and wait for him at the table, our food growing cold, but he would not appear. My mother would tell us that he must have been working overtime and not to worry, to go ahead and eat without him. Martin believed her, but I knew better. The money my father spent buying drinks at the Silver Slipper was money that never went to buy groceries or to pay the rent, so in my mother’s mind, it was money lost. We had too little of everything to waste anything, not food,
not clothes, not time, and, least of all, money. The fact that my father would spend even a nickel more than necessary was a slap in the face for all of the effort my mother put in trying to support us. Pawning her beloved painting was worse than if he’d quit his job altogether.
“So where did it go?” Martin asked as we trudged through the alley toward the schoolhouse. He and I spoke in English when we were alone. Most other children did too, though not around their families. At home, everyone spoke Polish. In private, however, Martin and I chose English, as if it was our private language, a secret code we kept to ourselves.
“What?” I asked, hoping to bluff my way out of having to answer his question.
I couldn’t tell my brother what I believed. I couldn’t bring myself to say the thought aloud. “The hook on the back was broken,” I answered. “He probably just took it to a handyman to fix it.” It was true that the hook was broken, but it had been broken since my mother bought the painting.
Martin nodded, easily persuaded for once, and I was thankful for that much.
“So why is he at the Silver Slipper?”
“I don’t know. Drinking, I guess.”
“But he can drink at home with us at breakfast.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want to drink with us.”
“Why wouldn’t he?” Martin persisted. He was holding my hand harder, trying to press out the answer he wanted to hear.
“I don’t know.”
My tone was enough to convey that anything else I might say
would be more than he wanted to know, so Martin let the subject drop and we walked in the opposite direction my mother had gone and into the rain.
HAT DAY IN CLASS
, Sister Bernadette gave a lecture about the martyrs of North America. She told us the story of Father Lalemant and Father Breboeuf, two French priests who had come to this country as missionaries and who had spent years with the Huron Indians preaching the word of the Lord. One day, a rival Iroquois tribe attacked the Huron village, and Father Lalemant and Father Breboeuf were seized and tortured. Red-hot hatchets were applied to their bodies, heated spear blades hung around their necks, belts of bark soaked in tar and resin were tied around their waists and set ablaze. Because he continued preaching to them throughout these tortures, the Iroquois gagged Father Breboeuf, cut off his nose, tore off his lips, and poured boiling water over him as a parody of baptism. Finally, large pieces of flesh were cut off the bodies of the priests and roasted, then their hearts were torn out and eaten along with their steaming blood.
Sister Bernadette recited the account with firm purpose and without a hint of disgust. All of the nuns took rare pleasure in recounting such horrors to us. Like soldiers who never saw combat, the gory tales of the saints were their adoptive war stories, and the nuns reveled in the fear they stirred in our souls.
Sister Bernadette spoke English, but like the rest of the nuns, her first language was Polish. So if the students wanted to whisper
in class or talk about her behind her back, we spoke as quickly as we could in English. The jumble of words was impenetrable to Sister Bernadette and often made her angry enough to bring out the dreaded twin rulers from her desk drawer. When held together back to back, a pair of rulers made a formidable weapon, especially when slapped across the top of the hand. Children bore scars for weeks at a time from ruler blows. Most wore them as badges of honor. I’d never done anything in class to warrant a lashing with the rulers and had no intention of doing so. I only spoke when questioned and never raised my hand. That way I remained inconspicuous, hidden, and that made day-to-day life at school bearable.
Later that morning, Donny Kopec came to class sporting a broken arm tied in a sling made of rags. He impressed everyone, including Sister Bernadette, with the story of how he’d broken his arm while riding the bicycle he used to make deliveries for the butcher, Mr. Goceljak. Donny had hit a rock and was thrown over the bicycle’s handlebars and into the middle of Field Street. He described the bicycle rearing up and tossing him through the air, then he claimed he’d heard the bone in his right arm break and mimicked the sound for everyone to hear. Unlike the gruesome stories of martyred saints told to scare us, this was the sort of gore we couldn’t get enough of and Donny was forced to repeat his story—which grew grander and more life threatening with every telling—throughout the school day.
At lunchtime, I sat with a few other girls who talked about the boys they had crushes on while I ate quietly and pretended to listen. Those sorts of conversations were always beyond me. It was like listening to my father talk about church taxes; the subject did not pertain to my life and seemed as if it never would, so I simply
nodded when it appeared I was supposed to nod. I was just happy that the girls let me sit with them.
In between their giggling, I overheard Donny tell some other boys that he was glad he wouldn’t have to make deliveries for Mr. Goceljak anymore and that the butcher would have to find somebody else to do the job. Those words rattled through my head like seeds until an idea blossomed in my mind, an idea so radiant I had to close my eyes in order to determine if it was possible.
There was only one shop in town where my father could have pawned my mother’s painting, the Savewell Five’n’Dime. It was a regular store, but the owner, Mr. Sekulski, also bought and sold personal items out of his back room. It was supposed to be a secret, but like most secrets in Hyde Bend, everybody knew. If I could get Donny’s old job making deliveries, I thought I could earn enough money to buy back the painting. I believed that if I could return the Black Madonna to my mother, then she might look at me the way she looked at it. Hope crystallized in my heart like a diamond.
FTER THE SCHOOL BELL RANG
, I bolted to Martin’s classroom and shoved him into his coat just as my mother had done that morning.
“This isn’t the way home,” Martin groused as I dragged him toward Field Street. “Where are we going?”
“Then why aren’t we going home?”
“Because we’re not.”
“Then what are we doing?”
“You’ll see,” I told him, pulling him by the hand. Martin had a book in his arms, a collection of illustrated Bible stories with a drawing of a lamb on the cover, and he was holding on to it for dear life. The younger children were allowed to take only a single book from the library per week, so books were a treat, especially for us because the only one we had at home was the Bible. Martin had just recently begun to read, but he was the fastest reader in his class, a fact I took great pride in. If he could have, Martin would have read all day instead of playing with the other kids or the meager toys we had. My father had made us a set of wooden blocks, and Martin and I would stack them into teetering towers, but there were never enough blocks to build anything that resembled a structure. My mother had bought me a rag doll at a church rummage sale, yet no matter how many times it was washed, the doll’s face remained dark with dirt and age, just as the Black Madonna’s had grown dark in the flames. We had little in terms of material possessions, but Martin’s ability to read seemed to suggest that what we lacked in wealth, we made up for in other ways.