thumbnail artwork by Rene Castro
Lee Van Dinter woke up early, with the beginning of a song running through his head. The others, “my associates,” as he referred to them, were still lying on the rows of cots around him, like so many piles of ragged wheezing laundry—stinking shapeless lumps, from which protruded bony arms and wiry beards. He sat up and tried to remember the lines that were left when the dream dissipated.
Those Charleston Manville bells don’t ring. . .
those Charleston Manville bells don’t ring.
Been here two years I know one thing
Charleston Manville bells don’t ring.
Where the hell did the dream come up with Charleston Manville? Was there such a place? He didn’t know. He slipped his feet into his shoes. You sure as hell didn’t want to walk barefoot in this place. He pulled his “old kit bag” from under the bed, took his toothbrush and toothpaste from the side pocket and wended his way through the maze of cots to the bathroom. Goddamit, in the old days—the old days, shit, two years ago, he would have taken his guitar, his coffee, and a pad of music paper out on the deck, sat there in the sun and wrote the song. “Ain’t got nobody to blame, asshole,” he said to himself. He pissed and brushed his teeth—took off his flannel shirt and tee shirt and washed up as best he could, wet down his hair and shook his dripping head, staring hard at the grizzled figure in the mirror. He’d shared a bottle of Old Ezra with some guys at a campfire in the woods along the tracks under the overpass. They said it was 101 proof, if that was possible. “Somewhat leaden, and moth-eaten this morning, Van Dinter.” He wondered if it might be better in the long run to go back down to the tracks, wait for a train to come by and jump in front of the sucker. Oh yeah—fear no more the heat of the sun, nor the furious winter— something. He decided against that because it would be messy as hell and he didn’t think he was ready to cash in his chips just yet. Anyway, he had a song to figure out, and that’s a reason to live.
Janey was reading the paper in the kitchen, and another bum was sitting at a table drinking a coffee and looking out the window at the dirt parking lot. “Ya wantsum toast?” she asked.
“Just a coffee, Janey. Little milk, no sugar.”
“Come ovah hea and gedit chaself.”
“OK. And would you get my guitar? Frank lets me leave it in the office.”
“Shor, Lee, but don’ play it in hea yet.”
“Can I play it softly?”
Once again he remembered the deck at his home, the forfeited home, where he used to write songs. “I had a house in the Highlands here in Lowell, you know,” he said as he poured his coffee. “Jesus, I wish I was back there.”
“Well, ya not the firs’ guyda loozha house over a boddle.”
“No shit.” He drank some coffee and said, “I had a wife. I guess I have a wife still. But –”
Janey was reading her horoscope and he could see she didn’t really give a fuck about his wife or his life. Why should she? He finished his coffee quickly because he remembered his wallet was in his bag under his cot, not that there was much to steal in it. He asked Janey again to get his guitar, and she tore herself away from the funnies. When he had the instrument, he thanked her for the coffee and went and folded his blanket, pulled his wallet and his Swiss army knife out of his bag and left the shelter, snatching a pencil and a junk mail envelope off the front desk on the way out.
It was a brisk and sunny morning in late March, something like Joni Mitchell once sang about in that song about Morgantown. Even the faded green and half-rusted struts of the overpass looked fine, and the smokestacks of the old mills were works of art, towering industrial monuments to a long-vanished working class. He recalled Jack Dacey, the house philosopher down at McCullough’s Bar saying, “It’s amazing how those smokestacks were all built in a perfect circular curve, even though the bricks themselves are not curved. And,” he said, “the whole structure tapers as it rises.” His hands had risen up and converged as if he would join them in prayer. They had agreed that those dudes were badass engineers, not to mention the balls on the masons that climbed up there in 1890 or something to lay the bricks. Christ, you wouldn’t want to be up there with a hangover.
He laid the guitar case down on a bench on Jackson Street by the stone-walled canal, lit a cigarette and sat down beside the instrument – two old pals, he thought. He flicked the five snaps open and picked up the guitar by the neck. Addressing himself to an invisible audience seated over the canal, he said, “She’s a 1947 Martin, 00-17, all mahogany body with a tortoise pickguard. Yeah, she’s a beauty folks, and like the song says, she’s all that I got left.”
He tucked the cigarette between his lips and strummed a few chords. He pulled a two-pronged tuning fork out of a compartment in the case and rapped it on his knee, placing the end against the soundboard; a perfect A tone rang out like a bell, and he tuned the A string to it, then twisted the other tuning pegs until he was satisfied. Most players nowadays used a Snark tuner that clipped on the head of the guitar and tuned by colored light bars, or they used some kind of cell phone app, but Lee had faith in time-honored methods. Robert Johnson sure didn’t need no colored light bars. Lee didn’t have a phone, but if he did, he wouldn’t use it to tune the damned guitar. He laid the smoking butt on the bench, and began.
Been here two years an’ I know one thing
Those Charleston Manville bells don’t ring
He sang the couplet over three or four times, picked up his cigarette, took another couple of drags, and laid it down again. He looked across the canal and up at the old cotton mills—the endless rows of windows suffused with pink in the rising sun. He thought of the men and women who for so many years had answered the bells that now sat dumb and rusting in their worn cupolas, and of the workers who climbed the great winding staircases to stand for years on end at the clanging looms—weave and spin, weave and spin. He remembered Nick, the old Greek communist, who asked him, “In what three places you hear bells?” Lee said he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but the Greek said, “In prison, in school, and in church, you see? The prison is the prison of the body, the school is the prison of the mind, and the church is the prison of the spirit.” Crazy old Greek almost made sense sometimes.
Been here two years an’ I know one thing
Those Charleston Manville bells don’t ring
Three men killed in the miners’ riot
But Charleston Manville bells are quiet.
Yes, the bells are quiet ‘cause they don’t give a fuck when workers die; they just call ‘em to the factory, to the mine, call ‘em to church. Like his great Aunt Clara—she answered the bell for thirty years in the Lawrence Mills, and on the day she retired the goddamn boss couldn’t even bother to come down to the floor to shake her hand. Lee’s head bowed over the instrument and a mournful sound rose, blues licks in the key of A minor. He bent the strings as he played, the way old Josh White and the great bluesmen taught us all. He listened for and found the chords, A minor 7th, D minor 7th, F and E7th. He wanted that ‘St. James Infirmary’ feel. That song knocked him out when he first heard it, like so much of the blues he loved, on a Josh White record. Josh was a dignified-sounding blues man, and a great acoustic player.
He took the pencil and the envelope out of his pocket and began to jot down notes to himself. He knew the chords, but he was working out the verses, singing softly, humming, trying variant lines. He cut Charleston Manville down to Manville. It wasn’t a riot— it was a mining disaster, and the whole piece was morphing from a bluesy number into a more traditional ballad, like “Little Musgrave.” Within fifteen minutes he had worked out the first two verses, and sang them over a few times to fit them to the melody:
Been here two years an’ I know one thing
For us, those Manville bells don’t ring
Twenty men buried down in the ground
But for the wailin’, it was quiet in the shanty town
The men volunteered they must have been insane
To shore up the tunnel in the southwest vein
All the way to the cavern where the water did run
Like the river in Hades far from the sun
Lee craned his neck backward and squinted at the real sun that was climbing the blue now. He got up and headed back to the shelter to help Frank fold the cots and to use the toilet, maybe have some of Janey’s toast. Crossing an alley between Mill Number Five and Middlesex Street a big guy in a filthy Patriots sweatshirt stepped out from behind a dumpster and bore down on him, “You got any change?”
“Do I look like I got any fuckin’ change?”
“Zat a guitah?”
“No, it’s a grand piano.”
“Lemme see it.”
“Whattaya mean, no?”
“No means no. Piss off.”
With his left hand, Lee pulled the jackknife from his pocket and kept walking, listening for footsteps behind him. He would die in the alley before he’s let anyone rip off the Martin. He took a deep breath when he got out onto Middlesex Street.
After he’d used the toilet and was leaving the bathroom, he saw Frank coming up to him, thin dark hair and the only neatly trimmed beard in the place.
“You have to take your guitar to the bathroom?”
“I’m afraid one of my associates might want to run off with it and join a combo.”
Frank smiled, and beckoned Lee to follow him. He turned a key and they walked into his office, a windowless room with a sports car calendar tacked onto the otherwise bare wall. The calendar was still stuck on February’s red 57 Thunderbird. “I don’t get it, Van Dinter,” Frank was saying. “You don’t belong with these guys.”
“Oh, they have accepted me, Frank. We are a merry band. Once you lose your pride, it’s easy to be merry.” His head turned quickly for a second, the way a bird’s head turns, because the line had caught his fancy. May be a song in that. There was a Dunkin Donuts box on Frank’s desk and two cups of joe with the lids on. “Help yourself,” Frank said. Lee thanked him and took a blueberry muffin, and one of the coffees. It was black and lukewarm, but that was fine. “How are you doin’, Lee, really? You don’t look merry.”
“Well, you know, there’s a tide in the affairs of men and all that. I’m at low tide, as you may have guessed. At the moment.”
Frank nodded, and Lee bit into his muffin. Lee helped out in the kitchen sometimes; he’d worked as a short order cook, and he was pretty handy with a spatula. Eddie, the kitchen manager, had told him that Frank had a degree in Chemistry from WPI. He couldn’t be making much scratch in this place. What made a guy with a science degree want to work in a place like this? Religion? Or just something inside. You had to admire a guy like that, because dealing with the crew out there couldn’t be easy.
“Your brother called here looking for you.”
“Today. This morning.”
Lee nodded, and braced himself for a sucker punch to the gut. He put the half-eaten muffin back in the box. “Is my mother all right?”
“She’s been askin’ for you, he says. You know she’s got dementia, but he says she keeps asking for you, and he thought . . .”
“You think it’s time to pull it together, Lee?”
“I always figured I would when I hit rock bottom.”
“What, you can’t feel the granite under your ass?”
Lee didn’t say anything. He was thinking of too many things to say any one thing. Pictures of his mother, of his wife smiling at him while he made her scrambled eggs, of the people he met on this road he was on, echoes of the life he was living— Zat a guitah? Snatches of old song—bury me in my high top Stetson hat.
Frank gave him a minute and then his voice broke the stillness. “Go see your mother, Lee.”
He sniffed and nodded. “Yeah, I’m gonna go see her.”
“It’s time.” He produced a twenty dollar bill and stretched his arm across the desk. “Take that for cab fare. And if you drink it at Melanson’s, I’ll smash that guitar over your head.”
“El Kabong rides again.”
He wagged the bill a couple of times in front of Lee. “Come on. Take it.”
“Nah, I’m all set. I got a plan.”
“Nobody here is all set, and damned few have a plan. You’ll need the cab fare to get to Methuen. And nobody here has ever turned down a sawbuck.”
Lee took the bill, singing, “If I ever get my hands on another dollar bill . . . ” He stuck it in his pocket and said, “Thanks. When I get back on my feet . . . I suppose you’ve heard that before.”
“Yeah, but when you say it, I almost believe it.”
“Well, I’ll help you fold up the cots.”
By nine o’clock, Lee was seated at the bar at Melanson’s. The door was propped open and a guy with a hand truck was wheeling in boxes of bar supplies. Lee watched the sunlight streaming in through the door in one great holy shower of gold across the dim interior of the bar. He was thinking of a chorus for the miners that inhabited his song; he saw a band of gritty men with lamps on their hard hats rolling coal cars full of bodies up from the dark shafts to the realms of light, and on to some makeshift graveyard in the shanty town, while in the city above, life went on without a visible vibration in the fabric of society, and he felt the anger that might turn them into something like Molly Maguires.
Up on the hill, the church choir sings
Sunday morning and the big bells ring
But their cold steel throats didn’t make a sound
On the sad Good Friday when the mine fell down.
He pulled the envelope out and scrawled more lines. He needed real men’s names, and in his mind he ran over the names of men he knew or names he’d heard.
Duggan and Clarke and eighteen more
Were down in the mine when we heard the roar.
He scratched out the second line and wrote:
Were in the underground station when we heard the roar.
He bit the pencil and squeezed his eyes shut, imagining men shouting and running toward the billowing mouth of the mine. He opened his eyes and continued writing.
We shifted rock, we tried a hundred ways,
But we didn’t reach those men for sixty days.
Lee watched Walter, the bartender, look over the boxes and sign for the order and the delivery guy went out, closing the door and the shaft of light disappeared just like that—it was like God left, and Lee recalled the day when he was a kid, maybe just five, and his mother’s father, Jack Shanahan, retired Lowell cop, brought him into the Parkway Lounge. The old men rubbed their leathery paws over the crew cut on his fair head and laughed—what they said was long lost, but all these years later they lingered in his memory in some indistinct way, a crowd of shades, and he remembered wondering why on earth anyone would want to come into a dark place on a sunny day, to breathe air spoiled with cigar smoke, and drink stuff that made their breath stink. He left his grandfather knocking back a drink with his cronies and went and sat on the curb outside. Wasn’t he smarter then than he was now? Paradoxically, it was in his innocence that he had seen how things really are.
Walter came over and stood in front of Lee, his hairy arms leaning on the beer cooler. “Whaddaya want?”
“Good morning, barkeep. Pleased to see you looking so well.”
“Come on, whaddaya want? I gotta put that shit away.” He nodded toward the boxes.
“You know bartenders are supposed to be friendly? Apparently it’s good for business.”
The door opened and a bleached blonde limped in on one high heel. She was carrying the other in her hand. “Waltah, you owe me a new paira shoes! My fuckin heel broke on your crappy sidewalk!” She took a seat at the bar and began to tell the story of her mishap in an angry voice.
He ignored her. “Whattaya want?” he asked again.
A nauseating feeling was growing in Lee’s gut; revulsion was replacing thirst. What did he want? He was feeling as he had in the Parkway Lounge long ago. The day had lost its color in this place. Like the river in Hades far from the sun. Along with the smell of stale beer, he seemed to smell the ignorance and feel the hopelessness that hung in a cloud so thick it was choking him. He wanted to be in the light, awake, composing, and not here, in the dark, forgetting, losing.
His hands were sweating. “You think people can change?” he asked the bartender.
Maybe if he had reassured him, Lee might still have stayed, and tried to put down his feelings with a few quick shots and a beer. Drink the bar dry of rum and rye. But Walter, prick that he was, was honest, and not given to idle reassurances. “Once a fuckin drunk, always a fuckin drunk. Whaddayawant?”
“These fuckin shoes cost twenny dolliz at Payless!” the woman cried.
“You know what, Walter?” Lee said. “I don’t want anything from you. Go fuck yourself.”
He stood up.
The bartender snickered, “You’ll be back.”
Lee slapped the bar hard with his open hand, and the bartender, who had begun to turn away, shot a backward glance at him. “Look at my eyes. I’ll never be back.” Lee grabbed his guitar and slung his bag over his shoulder. He approached the blonde and slapped the twenty dollar bill on the bar in front of her. “Put it toward the new shoes. Or drink it, as you like.”
Her jaw dropped. “Dijoo see that Waltah? What a fuckin gentleman! Thank you, guy—you’re a real fuckin gentleman!” She pointed an accusing finger at the bartender. “Not like this fuckin asshole!”
“Shut-up,” he replied, tiredly, as he went off to stow the boxes.
Lee nearly ran out of the bar. Outside, he slumped down onto the curb like the little boy he had been, and maybe still was in some part of his mind. He took a few deep breaths. He was trembling. Something was overwhelming him. Without knowing quite why, he began to cry. How do you like that, folks, the freewheelin’ Van Dinter sitting on the curb, crying. Looks like Good Time Charlie’s got the blues. In his mind, Frank’s voice broke the stillness once again. You think it’s time to pull it together, Lee? Go see your mother.
What was he trying to do? To live the blues, like those old-timers—like Lighnin’ Hopkins? He couldn’t do it. There was too much losing here on every side. The bad luck, the hard times, the sad tales, the addictions, the psychoses, the disappointments, the betrayals, the unsatisfied needs—it was a hell river of losing that rushed down Middlesex Street, and swirled through the bars and alleys and shelters and he felt he was sinking in it, drowning in it, falling down through it into darkness never to rise.
Lee looked down the street and saw a knot of his associates, his former associates, goddamit, standing in front of the shelter, smoking. They waved at him and yelled something he couldn’t make out. Sherman and Gordon and Diego Ruiz, Big Vickie V. and Alice Boney-Ass. Sad losers, all. Born under a bad sign. Rising, he set off in the other direction, composing as he walked, stopping to look over the canal that ran under Central Street and to copy down the verses in his head.
We shook our fists at that city on the hill
Where the houses are white and the bells are still
They won’t shed no tears and the bells won’t sound
For Irish miners in a shanty town
Now we’re drinkin em up, boys, we’re on a tear
Why call men like us to prayer?
No bell’s gonna sound out our death knell
When we standin’ in the smoke at the gates of hell
He was feeling better. He stuck the paper in his pocket and slid the pencil behind his ear and continued down Central Street to Merrimack, passing two Cambodian monks in saffron robes staring at a brass Buddha before whom sticks of incense were smoldering in the window of the Battambang Restaurant. Maybe they got the answers. He stopped at a shop whose sign read: Silva Gold and Jewel Pawn Brokers. He stepped inside and called out to the thin man behind the counter, “Silva Gold, eh? No pawn intended? Get it?”
The guy didn’t get it.
A half hour later, he was in a D&D cab heading toward Methuen. Manny Silva, known as the Azorean, had offered him 500 bucks for the guitar. “Just sign here,” he’d said.
“Look, in this compartment, I got the bill of sale from1992. See that?” Lee shook it in front of him. “Twenty five hundred dollars! And it’s in better condition now than when I bought it. I had the neck removed and reset five years ago! I didn’t just plane down the bridge like some guys do!”
“Is a nice instrument,” the Azorean said.
“You bet your ass it’s a nice instrument. Check on your computer there what it’s worth—go ahead.”
“I know what is worth. Is a nice instrument. Look, I give you 600.”
“You can sell it any day for 1500!”
“You can sell it right now for 600.”
Finally, Lee had taken 500 and a Jap guitar that had a 400 dollar bullshit price tag on it. He figured he’d done about as well as you can hope to do in a pawn shop, but as he signed the receipt, he told the Azorean, “‘Some men rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen.’” He laid the pen on the counter. “Woody Guthrie said that.”
“Never heard of him,” the Azorean said, and Lee took a last look at his guitar as the new owner put it in the case, and he sent across the space between them some kind of blessing or prayer or something, a good vibe, a respectful thank you—he didn’t know what—just a feeling, really.
The Jap guitar sounded OK. It wasn’t a Martin classic, but what the hell. Lee took out his pencil and the envelope still folded in his pocket, revisiting the scene of the mining disaster that he could now see played out in his imagination. By the time the cab crossed the Hunts Falls Bridge, he’d jotted down another couple of verses, and had a melody in his head, doleful, in A Minor.
Duggan, and Clarke and eighteen more
Were in the underground station when we heard the roar
We shifted rock – we tried a hundred ways
We didn’t reach those men for sixty days
Duggan’s wife— it was a terrible sight
Clawed away at the rock with all her might
Till her hands were bleeding for all to see
Crying Tommy Duggan come back to me
He lost his train of thought because the cabbie, a young Black guy, put on some rap or hip-hop, or whatever it was called, and by the time they got to the Dracut line, Lee was giving him an earful on one of his favorite themes. “You can have your Snoop Dog,” he said.
The cabbie smiled and said, “He’s Snoop Lion now.”
“He could be Snoop Bullfrog for all I care. Like I tell the young kids, the young Black kids, ‘You don’t want Magic Slim and . . . and Muddy Waters and Junior Wells and Howlin’ Wolf? You don’t want to hear Ethel Waters singing ‘Stormy Weather’? I tell you what, I’ll take that music. Oh yeah, this Dutch Irish boy will take the blues. And jazz? Fuckin’ Louis Armstrong? Are you kiddin’ me man? Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley, Thelonious and Miles and Charlie Parker? Are you kiddin’ me man? That’s a pantheon right there, and that’s just a beginning. Think about how many greats—”
The cabbie shrugged and Lee said, “You don’t even know what I’m talkin’ about. None of you young guys do! Now the hell did that happen? An’ now you got what, Kanye West? Give me a break. No talent. He’s a dwarf next to Buddy Guy.”
“Kanye can rap, and he can lay down a beat.”
“I don’t know what that means. Can he sing? Does he write songs? Does he play?”
“He sample stuff, and he produce it.”
“So he’s not a musician?”
“Shit man, you don’t have to play a guitar or a piano to be no musician—we got technology to do that.”
Lee’s laugh turned into a cough. When he recovered, he said, “I guess I don’t know what a musician is anymore. Maybe the computers can write our songs for us, too. Technology—shit.”
“You ever hear Kid Cudi? He’s a dope rapper. . .”
“Does he rap about bitches and N-words?”
“A little,” he admitted, “but the music’s poppin’.”
“I ain’t buyin’ it.”
“Well, you old school, no doubt. But you got a right to your opinion.”
“Thank you, sir. Not everyone believes that these days, you know. A cabbie tossed me out of his cab about a year ago because I expressed an opinion about his so-called music.” The sun shone through the trees along the river and their shadows fell like a strobe on his eyes as the cab moved down Rt. 110. Lee sighed, and said, “I’m going to see my mother. It’s been a while.”
The cabbie said that was a good thing, and as they passed into Methuen, Lee said, “Let me ask you this—what’s your name?”
“Good name. Means ‘well-born.’ Let me ask you this, Eugene. You think people can change?”
“What kinda people you talkin’ about? Like criminals?”
“Drunks. Bums. Losers. People that always have to fuck things up.”
“I got an uncle was a drunk fa’ years. Then one day he jus’ quit. He woke up one mornin’ and he said, ‘I’m done with all that.’ And he ain’t had a drink in like twenty years. He drink that fizzy water with lime, or ginger ale.”
Lee watched the old familiar landmarks pass by—the great brick archways of the Nevins Library, Marston’s Forge and the Clock Tower, and directed the cabbie to the stolid colonial where he’d lived some part of an earlier life. He paid his fare and threw in a ten dollar tip. “Thank you, sir,” he said. “And you give Kid Cudi a lissen’!”
“Awright, for you I’ll even try it. Cause you know what you are, Eugene?”
“You’re a workin’ man! You’re the salt of the earth! You’re the backbone of this whole damn country! Lemme shake your hand!”
They shook hands, and whether Eugene smiled in his soul as he pulled away, or just shook his head and chalked it up to another crazy fare, Lee did not know, but why the hell are we here if you can’t tell people what you think.
He still had a key in his bag somewhere, but as he approached the front door, Maria opened it. She was the Puerto Rican woman who cared for his mother. He hadn’t seen her much for a while. She gave him a sad sort of smile and a hug. She looked worn out. He knew that her son had died about a year before, and while the poor woman was having Easter Dinner with what remained of her family, the asshole from the crematorium came to deliver her son’s ashes. “I was in the neighborhood,” he said. Imagine that? Thank you, Death! Easter Sunday—no resurrection for you—just your son’s ashes in a box. What the hell was wrong with people?
“How’s Marilyn?” Lee asked.
“She’s confuse, but she ask for you, a lot.”
“I’ll go see her.”
“I make you a plate—arroz con gandules.”
“That’d be great. I feel weak.”
“You want coffee?”
“If it’s not too much trouble.”
Nothing was ever too much trouble for Maria.
His mother’s bed had been moved into the dining room. Well, it wasn’t really her bed—it was a hospital bed that could be adjusted with a control. She was sitting up in it, staring at some Hallmark movie. She turned to him as he approached, watching him, but there was no light of recognition. He picked up the remote from the bed and muted the movie.
“Of course my mother. I keep asking and they say, ‘Oh, she’s gone.’ I know she’s gone! I’m not a . . . a bamboo, but where is she?”
“Ma, Grammie, she died in 1977.”
“I know I know she’s dead and buried, but on Sundays they go out for a ride, don’t you see? And I’m trying to find out—I want to know where did they go?”
Lee stammered, “I—I don’t know.”
“Oh, nobody knows anything.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Were you were you out in the thunderstorm?”
“About an hour ago,” she said. It had been sunny all day. She continued, “It was something awful. I had to move over in bed to let the children in with me.”
He didn’t know what to say.
“I hope Lee wasn’t out in the storm,” she said, “I worry about him.”
“I’m Lee, Ma. I’m fine. I wasn’t out . . .”
“I’m not talkin’ about you. I’m talkin’ about my son, Lee.”
“I am Lee. I’m your son, Lee.”
“You’re not my son.”
The words hurt in the way that his wife’s words had hurt when she asked him to leave their house, when she got tired of trying, and he got tired of failing, of holding her back.
“I am your son, Lee.”
“Oh, never mind about you! Lee is only fourteen!” She was getting agitated.
Maria appeared in the doorway, and shook her head. “Don’ argue with her,” she said softly. “Your plate is ready.”
He went out to the kitchen and sat at the table in front of the plate Maria had put together and she poured him a coffee. “I been praying hard for you,” she said. And once again, tears welled up in his eyes. He covered his face with his hands and cried, while Maria continued, “Yes, I pray for my son and I pray for you. I pray that you stop hurting yourself, yes, that you get better.”
By “get better,” he knew what she meant. It was a phrase that took the responsibility away from him, but he was responsible. “I’m done with all that,” he said, with a resolve he had never known in his core, in his bones, in his soul.
“Yes, I know. I can see.”
“I’m so tired of losing, Maria.”
For the first time in years, as he sat there in his old mother’s kitchen, he allowed himself to imagine a future. Buy some new clothes. Get a job as a short order cook at the Sunnyside Diner or the Country Kitchen until he could get his license back. Call Jim Rooney, and once he proved to him that he had his shit together, they could start gigging. And after he’d been straight for a year—who knows?
After he ate, he got the Yamaha out of its case. He sat for a few minutes on the bench by the radiator in the kitchen and wrote some notes and hummed to himself while Maria got his mother up to use the commode. He knew how the song had to end—there had to be some hope—some light at the end of that mining shaft—a chance. He played the whole ballad through with the final stanzas he’d just composed.
Gonna throw down my pick throw down my shovel
Gonna leave this town and its miners’ hovels
Wash off the dirt-lose the company collar
Try my luck in Seattle on a fishing trawler.
Or jump aboard the west-bound hundred and nine
Find a life on the earth and not down in a mine
No more breathin’ the black damp, crawlin through the drift
Just tryin’ to stay alive to the end of my shift.
“You play the guitar?” his mother asked when he went back into her room.
“My son plays the guitar.”
“I hear he’s pretty good.”
She nodded. “Yes, he’s good.” There was a basket tied to the railing of her bed, and out of it she extracted the old rosary Lee’s father had given her. The beads were of pale green Connemara marble. She drew them between her gnarled fingers and said, “I just hope he’s safe wherever he is.”
He placed a hand over hers and said, “He’s all right, Marylin. He’s all right.”
Steve O’Connor has published stories in The Massachusetts Review, as well as in Aethlon, Sobotka Review, and numerous other litmags. He has also published three books Smokestack Lightning, a collection of stories, and two novels: The Witch at Rivermouth and The Spy in the City of Books.
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April 15, 2017
April 06, 2017
Judging a creative writing contest is to pretend authority and, even m
Anita! I know someone who wants to work in Chile but as electrician. D
I really enjoyed this story. It made me think about my own predisposit
Thank you, Scott.
I have been living in Santiago for about one year and I can confirm th