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The Bottom of Things

ISSUE:  Summer 2004

Ray and his second wife drove into Bakerton on a clear winter morning, in a Ford they’d rented at the Pittsburgh airport. They’d been off the highway for two hours, traveling a road that snaked through mountains, alongside streams and frozen fields. Their flight had left Houston at dawn. They’d come a thousand miles to attend a small party at the Bakerton fire hall, to celebrate his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary.

The invitation had arrived one morning in the mail; when Ray came home from work Evie was already on the phone with his mother. Of course we’ll come, Evie said. We’re overdue for a visit. In six years the women had met just twice, though they spoke every month on the phone. Each Christmas, Evie suggested spending the holiday in Pennsylvania, but always there was a reason not to: work, a slipped disk in Ray’s back, the weekend ranch they’d bought and were moving into bit by bit, where they’d eventually retire. A few years ago, Ray and a buddy had quit their jobs at Exxon and started their own company. For eight months they drilled; then—their houses remortgaged, their credit nearly exhausted—they struck oil. The venture was as consuming as a new baby; years passed without his noticing. In that time his parents had grown older; Bakerton, even farther away.

“Are we almost there? These roads make me queasy.” Evie took a pair of sunglasses from her pocketbook. She was an optometrist and careful of her eyes.

“It’s just over this hill.” He hit the gas; the Ford’s motor roared. They passed the Baptist church and cemetery and climbed what, as kids, Ray and his brother, Kenny, had called Holy Roller Hill. At the top he slowed. The town lay before them in a deep valley, settled there like sediment: the quiet main street with its one traffic light, the rows of company houses, narrow and square—some brick-cased now, or disguised with porches and aluminum siding, but at this distance you could see how alike they all were. From a few chimneys came streams of dark smoke; most had coal furnaces still. The snow had an established look—dirty at the edges, crusted over with ice. Ray accelerated, racing down the hill.

“Ooh,” said Evie, clutching her stomach.

He felt it too, the sudden sinking in his belly. As a boy he’d loved the feeling, urged Pop to take the hill faster, waiting for the drop with dread and glee. At the bottom of the hill he braked. The Ford handled well—a surprise: he hadn’t driven an American car in years, though he’d once worked on an assembly line building bodies for Pontiacs and Chevys. Back then, living in the Cleveland suburbs with his first wife, he’d had a red Corvette—a car he still drove occasionally, in dreams.

The town was quiet that morning, the sidewalks deserted. A single car idled at the traffic light.

“I don’t remember this,” said Evie. “Nothing looks familiar.” She’d been to Bakerton just once—three years before, for his brother Kenny’s funeral. A quick trip in the middle of summer, in and out in two days.

“It looks different in the winter.” Looks worse, he thought: sadder and more dilapidated. Empty storefronts lined the main street; the drugstore and the luncheonette had gone out of business. He avoided looking at the vacant lot where the Commercial Hotel had once stood; the place had burned down years ago, and no one had bothered to rebuild it. More and more, Bakerton looked like what it had always been, a town of churches and bars. As a young man he’d lied about where he came from, said Pittsburgh when anyone asked. Over the years he’d stopped lying, or maybe people stopped asking. He was fifty-three that June.

His parents lived on a dead-end street at the edge of town, a narrow stretch of gravel lined with neighbors’ cars. Ray idled while a pickup truck made a three-point turn in the middle of the road. On Dixon Road this maneuver was performed many times each day; there was no other way to turn around.

The house was unlocked; Ray knocked lightly, then opened the door. He was a big man, six feet four; his head barely cleared the door frame. The living room was narrow and dark, crowded with furniture. Framed photographs covered the paneled walls. The front-facing window was heavily decorated—velvet drapes, ruffles, sheer curtains underneath—as if, having only one window, his mother had lavished all her attention on it.

“Anybody home?” Ray called.

“Coming,” Pop answered from the kitchen.

Ray glanced at the photos on the wall. Himself and Kenny in parochial school uniforms; Kenny in army greens and later, near the end of his life, smoking a cigarette on the back porch in the ratty plaid hunting jacket he’d worn nine months of the year. His gray hair was long and straggly. He had the raw, windburned look of an old sea captain.

Pop emerged from the kitchen, slightly breathless; he kissed Evie and clapped Ray’s shoulder. “Hey, buddy,” he said, offering his hand. The hand was hard and wiry, half the size of Ray’s and probably twice as strong. “Fran took your mother to the bake sale. You got here quicker than we thought.”

“You remember Fran,” Ray told Evie. “Kenny’s wife.”

“Of course.” Evie looked pale and slightly clammy, still carsick, he supposed, from the ride. Ray suggested she go upstairs and take a nap; he and Pop sat in the kitchen drinking coffee Pop had reheated on the stove. They talked about road conditions, the highway still under construction, the likelihood of a second Clinton term. Over my dead body, Ray thought but didn’t say. They would never agree on politics. Only once had Pop voted Republican: after the war, out of loyalty, for Eisenhower. The day of the inauguration he lost his job driving a bread truck. No one could persuade him the events were unrelated.

“You look flushed,” Ray said. “How’s your blood pressure?”

“Up a little, I guess. Too much excitement. The party and all.” Pop refilled their cups. “It’s going to be quite a shindig. Fran invited half the town, from the sounds of it.”

Outside a dog was barking, a beagle the neighbors kept for hunting.

“Evie’s a nice girl,” said Pop. All women were girls to him: matrons, elderly nuns, his own sisters, now in their seventies. Evie was only forty; to him she must look like a kid.

“Yeah,” said Ray. “She’s great.”

“Ever hear from Georgette? If you don’t mind my asking.” He was fond of Ray’s first wife, had worked in the mines with her father. For thirty years they’d been pinners, the first men to set foot in a newly blasted seam of coal; their job was to prevent the ceiling from collapsing on the miners who would follow. Pop and Red had worked as a team, spacing thick wooden posts at intervals to hold up the ceiling, then hammering the posts into place.

“No,” said Ray. “Not in a long time. How about you?”

“She calls your mother once in awhile. Sends pictures of the boys.”

Ray nodded. “How are they doing?”

“Ray Junior’s got his own shop now. I guess you knew.”

“Sure,” Ray lied.

“He does all foreign cars. Hondas, Toyotas. I guess they’re better than they used to be.” Pop had driven Buicks for forty years.

“How’s Bryan?”

“Still living at home.” Pop’s mouth tightened. He glanced at the clock. “I wonder what’s taking your mother.”

“Nice of Fran,” said Ray. “Driving her around like that.”

Pop looked down into his coffee. “It was Fran’s idea, you know. The party.”

“Nice of her,” Ray said again.

“She means well. Of course, if it were up to Mom and me—” He broke off. “You know we don’t like a fuss.”

“I know.” Ray finished his coffee and stood. “I’m going to check on Evie.”

His parents were married after the war, five months after Pop returned from France. Ray was at that time four years old. He had no memory of the wedding, wasn’t sure he’d even attended. Perhaps, in those days, young children were kept away from weddings (a fine idea, in his opinion). The bride’s young child, in particular, might have been kept away.

His mother was young then, barely twenty, the oldest of nine children. She hadn’t finished school, had instead been sent away to New York City to work as a live-in maid. Like most of their neighbors, Ray’s grandparents were Polish; during the Depression their daughters found work with the wealthy Jews of Manhattan, who preferred Polish-speaking help to keep their kosher kitchens. Ray’s mother was fifteen when she left Bakerton—terrified, probably, a small-town girl, an innocent. She traveled by train to Penn Station, her passage paid by her new employers. A year later she came back to Bakerton at her own expense—alone still, and pregnant.

She had suffered; of that Ray was sure. He remembered his grandfather, silent and stern; his devout grandmother, who’d spent her final years saying rosaries, being blessed by priests.

He was born in his grandparents’ house; his grandmother, a midwife, had delivered every child in the neighborhood. Ray’s mother sewed sleeves at the dress factory in town; he spent the days in his grandmother’s kitchen. He remembered a warm corner near the coal stove where he’d played, the apples she’d baked each morning for breakfast. Summers he played in the woods with his aunts and uncles—the youngest aunt was his own age, the youngest uncle a year older. The aunts had cried the day he and his mother drove away, their belongings in the back of a pickup truck. Looking back, he imagined it was the morning after the wedding—his mother’s wedding to Pop.

No one had told him this; he’d pieced the story together himself. In her old age his grandmother had been confused, voluble, overwrought. She cried, ranted, told stories in English and in Polish. It was my fault, she’d once told his mother, for sending you away. Ray was twelve when he found his birth certificate in a strongbox in his grandmother’s attic, the paper marked “Father Unknown.” (Years later, when he needed a birth certificate to register for the draft, his mother claimed it was lost; the recruiter accepted a baptismal certificate instead.) In the same box he found his parents’ marriage certificate, written in Polish by the parish priest. He noted the names and dates, and after that the world looked different to him. He himself looked different. He was a dark-haired boy, tall for his age. His brother, Kenny, was fair and blue-eyed, slightly undersized—the very image of Pop.

There were twin beds in his childhood room, each covered with a crocheted afghan. Evie lay sleeping on Kenny’s old one near the window. Six years older, Ray could remember his brother sleeping in a crib; later, wetting the bed, waking from nightmares. “Go back to sleep,” he’d grumbled when Kenny woke up crying and wanted to climb in bed with him. Ray was nine or ten then; it had seemed to him a tremendous burden, sharing a room with a big baby.

He stretched out on his old bed, breathing deeply. He’d had asthma as a child; the attacks had stopped in his teens, but every once in awhile he still felt tightness in his chest. This happened mainly when he visited Bakerton—the coal heat, he supposed.

The party wouldn’t start until evening. Ray imagined his mother shy and awkward, Pop stiff and uncomfortable in a button-down shirt. You know we don’t like a fuss. This, certainly, was true: in all their years of marriage he’d never known them to celebrate an anniversary.

Ray glanced around the room, unchanged since his last visit, the bookcase still loaded down with relics of his boyhood. Science fair trophies, his old Boy Scout manuals—Wolf, Bear, Eagle. Kenny’s posters—of rock bands and fast cars—had disappeared long ago. Ray didn’t blame his parents for that. They’d done all they could for Kenny. He had simply worn them down.

In the other bed Evie stirred. “Ray? How long have you been sitting there?”

“Not long.” He adjusted the pillows behind his back. “The party was Fran’s idea,” he said. “So that’s one mystery solved.”

“Fran doesn’t know?”

“I doubt it. Kenny never knew.”

“How strange.” She rolled onto her side, facing him. “The secrecy, I mean. Today nobody gives it a second thought. Single mothers, kids who”—she hesitated—”kids with stepfathers.” Ray noticed she avoided using the word illegitimate. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I don’t know if they’re ashamed, exactly,” said Ray. “We just never talked about it.”

Evie rubbed her belly. “My stomach’s in a knot. I think I’ll take a bath.” She’d been queasy for weeks; she blamed the prenatal vitamins. In two weeks she’d be in the second trimester; then, supposedly, the sickness would pass.

They had never planned on children. I’m not the Mommy type, she’d said on their first date. She was thirty then; she had her own practice, nieces and nephews she adored. He had taken her to Italy, to Greece; they had learned to scuba dive. To Ray their life seemed full. He’d been stunned when she changed her mind. She didn’t want to miss it, she said. To go through her whole life not knowing what it was like.

It’s different for you, she said. You had the boys. You’ve already had that experience.

he said. Look how well that turned out.

Upstairs, water roared into the tub; downstairs, Ray waited in the living room for his mother to return. He sat staring at the wall, at the photographs in their frames. He took one down and held it in his lap. Himself and Georgette, dressed for the high school prom: Georgette’s arms bare, her red hair teased into a beehive, a corsage of carnations pinned at her waist. At seventeen she was somehow womanly; he, a year older, looked like a kid: slouching, his shoulders thin as a coat hanger in the rented tuxedo. They’d driven to the dance in Pop’s truck; Ray wanted to park by the reservoir first, but Georgette refused to mess her hair. He hadn’t yet told her he was leaving. She wouldn’t understand it: the mines were booming then, three shifts per day; the starting wage was at an all-time high. He couldn’t tell her he feared the life unfolding before him: married to the only girl he’d ever laid, living in a company house just like his parents’, never seeing any more of the world than the town he was born in. His buddy Steve Marstellar could get him in at Fisher Body, a division of General Motors. Cleveland and its city pleasures, its exotic women, lay before him.

Georgette cried when he told her, begged him to wait until she graduated high school. “It’s only a year,” she said, but Ray knew what that meant. He’d seen it enough times: guys just ahead of him in school, stuck with a wife and kid before they were twenty. Only Marstellar had escaped.

“I’ll come and visit,” he promised, and for awhile he had—rode the Greyhound bus to Bakerton every other weekend. (He was saving for a car.) When he came back, Marstellar filled him in on what he’d missed: the ballgames (Marstellar had season tickets to the Indians), the girls. Finally Ray grew tired of the bus rides and tired of Georgette, who still dragged him to school dances, who wouldn’t drink or smoke, whose idea of a good time was hanging out at Keener’s Diner on a Saturday night. Months passed while he worked up the nerve to tell her, and by then it was too late. Georgette was already pregnant.

“Does her dad know?” Pop had asked when Ray told him. They were sitting on the back porch smoking cigarettes. Pop didn’t mind Ray’s new habit but advised him to keep it from his mother.

“Not yet,” said Ray. “He’s going to have a fit.”

Pop shrugged. “He’s got a short fuse, but he’ll get over it. Red always liked you. He’ll be glad to have you in the family.” He leaned forward in his chair. “Talk to the priest before you go. No sense waiting until the last minute.”

Ray’s face heated; his chest felt tight. “I don’t want to talk to the priest.”

For a long time Pop said nothing. When he did, it was as if Ray hadn’t spoken. “She’s a good girl,” he said. “Everything will work out. But first you have to make it right.”

Ray stared at him. For a moment he forgot all about Georgette, the baby she was carrying. It seemed that everything in his life had led to this moment.

“Is that what you did?” he asked. “Made it right?”

Pop looked away. At the bottom of the hill men were waiting for the company bus to come and take them to the mine.

“You were overseas when she got pregnant,” Ray said, his heart hammering. “It wasn’t even your mistake.”

Pop was silent a long time. “I should have told you myself,” he said finally. “But I guess you figured it out.”

Ray said nothing. Inside him something was bursting. Until that moment he’d still hoped he was wrong.

“Don’t say anything to your mother,” said Pop. “She’s sensitive about it. In those days they blamed it all on the girl. That isn’t right.”

Ray nodded, his cheeks burning.

“She was just a kid,” said Pop. “Didn’t know what she was doing. The fellow took advantage of her.”

Who? Ray thought. Who took advantage of her?

“He was nobody,” Pop said, as if he’d heard. “Sorry, buddy, but it’s the truth. He let her face it all by herself. That’s not a man. Not in my book.” He looked away, red-faced. “I knew her my whole life, since we were kids. I didn’t care what people said. I knew what kind of a person she was.” It was, for him, a tremendous speech. He sat back in his chair, as if exhausted by the effort.

“You didn’t mind?” said Ray. “All those years, raising someone else’s kid?”

“I didn’t see it that way. You were my boy, same as Kenny. It was no trouble.” Pop rose to go; he worked the Hoot Owl shift, midnight to eight.

“You were a good boy,” he said. “I didn’t mind at all.”

Ray and Georgette were married at St. Casimir’s the day after her high school graduation. They piled her things into the secondhand Ford he’d borrowed from Steve Marstellar, and Ray spent his twentieth birthday driving back to Cleveland.

They rented a tiny apartment in a building downtown, half a mile from the river. That summer, the hottest on record, the Cuyahoga reeked of sewage; their fourth-floor apartment held the heat like a greenhouse. At night they slept on the fire escape, waiting for a breeze; one Sunday afternoon they filled the bathtub with ice and spent the day there, wrapped around each other like pretzels. Most nights, and some mornings, they made love in the narrow Murphy bed; he was crazy for her little belly, her heavy breasts. Looking back it amazed him, the constriction of that life; yet at the time he’d been able to breathe. Only later, after they bought the house in Parma, did he begin to suffocate. The split-levels in their subdivision were as alike as Bakerton company houses; his neighbors wanted nothing more from life than what they already had: steady work, a new Chevy each year, weekends in front of the television drinking beer and watching ball. It wasn’t a bad life, if you considered the alternative. All Ray’s single friends—Steve Marstellar, his brother Kenny—had been drafted. Ray knew he owed his life to Georgette, that if not for her and the baby he might have ended up like Marstellar, killed in the battle of Khe Sanh. Yet he was not grateful. He saw only that the life he’d feared had caught him, that he might as well have stayed in Bakerton after all.

He wondered—his whole life, but in those years especially—about the man who’d fathered him. A city man, he imagined, bred for a special kind of life: fast, complex, constantly changing. He decided that restlessness was in his blood—not a character flaw, as Georgette saw it, but a biological fact, like his height, his dark hair, his asthma, a trait beyond his control. A trait some (not Georgette, but some) might call admirable. That same restlessness got him off the assembly line and through six years of night school, difficult courses in geochemistry, mineralogy, petrology. By his thirtieth birthday he had a new job, the first college degree in his family, and something even more valuable: an understanding of time. Geologic time, large and long; earth was patient, incubating its treasures—diamonds, petroleum, coal—for millions of years. By comparison his own life no longer seemed so static.

Slowly, slowly, things were changing. The boys were growing up; Georgette, bored in the empty house, had gotten a beauty operator’s license and opened a shop above their garage. In a few years she’d be able to take care of herself; the boys would go off to college, and Ray would go and find his life. He hadn’t planned on being laid off, or on finding the perfect job, the Houston job, just as his unemployment ran out. “I have to take it,” he told Georgette; and for once she couldn’t argue. They’d pretended, at first, that she’d join him once the school year ended, the house sold; or maybe only Ray was pretending. Either way, the result was the same. Ray was on his own in Houston.

At first he’d behaved himself: traveled back to Parma every month to visit, spent evenings in front of the television in the studio apartment he’d rented. Finally the possibilities overwhelmed him. Women were everywhere. He had money, time, and freedom, or at least the illusion of it. Never before in his life had he possessed all three things at once.

Guilty, he spoke to Georgette every day; every two weeks he sent money, each paycheck more than he used to earn in a month. For his younger son’s birthday he flew both boys down to Houston and took them to a game at the Astrodome; a success, he thought, though Ray Junior had rooted for the visiting team and Bryan spent the two hours reading a magazine. At twelve Ray Junior could still be distracted; Bryan, four years older, could not. “How come you never answer the phone?” he’d asked as they ate breakfast in Ray’s apartment. It rang constantly that weekend. That summer Ray had met Evie when she fitted him for reading glasses. They’d been dating on and off for months.

It was Georgette who asked for the divorce. She demanded the house, alimony, child support; guilty of everything, he could not object. She kept the money they’d set aside for the boys’ education; what she did with it, he never knew. Neither of his sons was interested in college. Ray Junior studied automotive repair at Lincoln Tech. Bryan went to the same cosmetology school Georgette had attended; for years now he’d worked above his parents’ garage in Parma, cutting hair alongside his mother. He hadn’t spoken to Ray in six years. Neither of the boys had come to the wedding. “No way in hell,” Bryan said when Evie invited him. Ray Junior had been more casual: he had to work, he said; he’d used up his vacation days during hunting season. He and Ray rarely spoke, though Evie sent the boy a card each Christmas and received one in return: Happy Holidays from Raymond and Sherry. The neat handwriting belonged to Ray Junior’s girlfriend, a woman Ray had never met.

He replaced the photo on the wall. Below it hung a recent shot, the boys standing before a Christmas tree. Bryan, he noticed with a kind of shock, was balding; a diamond stud twinkled in his right earlobe. Ray Junior wore sideburns and a goatee; the last time Ray had seen him, he was barely old enough to shave.

His whole life he’d believed there were two kinds of men: the kind who’d fathered him and the kind who’d raised him; men who cherished their freedom and men who threw it away; men who lived big lives and men who were content being small. For years, living in Parma with his family, he’d believed himself the latter kind, a small man who would never be free. Later—too late—he saw that he had it backwards. He wasn’t, could never be, like Pop. He was his father’s son after all.

Ray’s mother came home from the bake sale loaded down with packages: raisin bread, poppy seed roll, a strawberry-rhubarb pie. “You’re looking good, Mom,” said Ray, watching her bustle around the kitchen, wiping down clean countertops, reheating leftovers for lunch. She was sturdy and compact; her white hair looked freshly set. Except for a few wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, her skin looked tight as a girl’s.

She kissed his cheek. “When you’re young they say you’re good-looking,” she said, laughing. “At my age they say you’re looking good.”

She set the table with familiar dishes: dark bread, bowls of vegetable soup, cucumber slices in sour cream. “I can’t complain,” she said. “My sugar’s good. Fran took me to get it checked. Some of those ladies up the church take a dozen pills a day. Me, nothing. I’ll live to be a hundred.” She set down a steaming platter mounded with pierogies.

“This looks delicious, Helen,” said Evie.

The name hung awkwardly in the air. Ray’s first wife had called his mother “Mom”; Kenny’s wife did the same.

The dishes circulated. Evie talked about the Ovo Café, an elegant little bistro in Houston. Recently pierogies had been added to the menu, at the astounding price of twenty dollars a plate.

“Twenty dollars?” Ray’s mother looked down at her plate. “They’re nothing but potatoes and flour. You can make a dozen for a quarter.” She watched as Evie finished her soup. “You’re eating good,” she observed. “Last time, I remember, you ate like a bird.”

Evie flushed. “I’ve gained a few pounds.” Her eyes met Ray’s; for moment he saw the question in them. Can I tell her?

“Where’s Pop?” Ray asked, turning to his mother. He avoided Evie’s gaze. She’d be disappointed, angry with him for changing the subject, but he couldn’t help himself. He wasn’t ready for anyone to know.

Pop wouldn’t join them, Ray’s mother explained; his appetite wasn’t what it used to be. “If I don’t feed him, he forgets to eat,” she said. “He’s as bad as your brother was.”

Ray thought of Kenny as he’d last seen him: gaunt and wizened, his face lined as an old man’s. He weighed less than he had in high school. In Vietnam he’d contracted a strange parasite from drinking untreated water. The army doctor gave him antibiotics and pronounced him cured, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was eating him from the inside.

He came home on furlough in 1970, a week of freedom before his second tour of duty. “I re-upped,” he’d written Ray in a rare letter. “Don’t tell Mom.” Ray drove in from Parma to see him and was surprised at how well he looked: strong, suntanned, somehow feral with his white teeth. By comparison Ray felt middle-aged, weak and indoorsy. His back ached; his hands looked girlishly soft.

For three nights they sat on the back porch, smoking and drinking. Kenny had nothing to say about the war, his life as a soldier. Instead they talked about the past, the childhood that, with their age difference, they hadn’t quite shared. Still: there were nuns who’d taught them both in grade school, neighborhood boys they both remembered, pretty girls they’d watched from afar. They talked late into the night; Kenny never seemed to get tired. “Where do you think you’re going?” he’d ask when Ray, bleary-eyed, rose to go to bed.

Two years later he came back for good. “He’s changed,” Ray’s mother warned him over the phone. Ray visited at Christmas and was stunned by Kenny’s appearance: hollow-eyed, skeletally thin. He was missing a front tooth—he had a fake one, he said, but couldn’t be bothered to wear it. There was no reminiscing during that visit, no late-night drinking. Ray and his family were staying with Georgette’s parents; Kenny spent most of the time in his old bedroom with the door closed. He slept all the time now, Ray’s mother whispered to him. He slept as though he hadn’t slept in years.

He went to work in the machine shop at Baker Brothers number 9. He was hired as a greaser; all night long he lubed the moving parts of shuttlecars. “It’s a start,” Pop said, though Ray knew he was disappointed. Shop positions were dead-end jobs; for a miner, the real money was underground. For Kenny that was the whole problem. “I can’t live like that,” he told Ray once. “Crawling around in caves, like a rat. I done enough of that over there.” He phoned late on his nights off; drunk, he talked about his years away. He rarely mentioned combat. Instead he reminisced about his crazy army buddies: the drugs they’d taken, the girls they’d balled, the hell they’d raised. These conversations could last an hour or more. “One more thing,” he said again and again, before launching into another tale. He talked so fast Ray could barely understand him, as though he were running out of time.

He worked nights, which suited him; all day he slept in his and Ray’s old room. Weekends he dated Fran Wenturine, a shy, dark-haired girl he’d known in school. Fran lived in town with her widowed father, a wounded veteran who tended bar at the American Legion. The old man was fond of Kenny, would often slip him a free shot of whiskey when Kenny stopped at the Legion before work. When the mines slowed, Kenny switched to day shift; he worked three days a week and closed the Legion the other four. Broke, he sold reefer on the side. Every couple of months he drove Fran’s car down to Kentucky and came back with a bagful of dense, flavorful skunk, grown by an army buddy on his family’s tobacco farm.

By then he’d stopped calling Ray. Married, he had someone else to listen on those drunken nights when his words ran together in his eagerness to get them out. Ray learned the details of his life thirdhand, from Georgette. Fran called her a few times a month, whenever Kenny drank more than usual and scared her with talk of suicide. For years he’d suffered from nightmares; often he walked in his sleep. One night she’d found him on the front porch, her father’s hunting rifle across his knees. “I have to go,” he said when she called his name. “Time for me to go.” She took the rifle from him and led him back to bed.

Each morning she made him breakfast, then left for her job at the supermarket. If he was working she’d drop him off at the mine; if not, she’d leave him sitting at the kitchen table with her father. They’d spend the day there, playing cards and drinking into the afternoon, until the old man left for work at the Legion. Life went on that way for years, until Fran’s father found a bag of marijuana stashed in the basement. When she came home from work that night she found Kenny alone at the table, his left eye bruised where the old man had hit him.

In the mid-1980s, Mine #9 closed; Pop retired, and Kenny, out of a job, became a volunteer fireman. “It’s good for him,” Ray’s mother explained. “Better than sitting home all day.” Fran got pregnant—intentionally or not, Ray never knew. Probably she’d talked to Georgette about it, but by then Ray and his wife were no longer speaking. She had already filed for divorce.

The Bakerton Volunteer Fire Company sat at the corner of Main and Baker Streets, what used to be the busiest corner in town. Ray and Evie parked on the street; even on a Saturday night there were plenty of spaces. Years ago, Keener’s Diner had been located across the street, flanked by a bowling alley and a pool hall; weekend evenings, after dances or football games, these places were crowded with young people. On warm nights the firemen set up folding chairs on the sidewalk and called to the girls walking in pairs or threes down Main Street. August was the Firemen’s Festival; for three days Bakerton would be overrun by volunteer firemen from neighboring towns, who stopped to drink and game at the booths set up along Baker Street. The last night of the festival was the firemen’s parade; afterwards, an open-air dance, musicians playing from a platform outside the fire hall: shrieking saxophones, the silvery hiss of a cymbal. Since then the bowling alley had been torn down, the pool hall converted into a Goodwill store. Keener’s Diner had become the public library. All along Baker Street the windows were dark.

It had begun to snow; a stiff wind tugged at Ray’s coat as he helped Evie out of the car. They went in through the side entrance. The first floor of the hall was for firemen only: garage, equipment room, and in one corner, a dark, smoky barroom known as the Firemen’s Club. Once, years ago, Ray had gotten drunk there with his brother. After the mines shut down, Kenny had spent all his time at the hall, smoking and throwing darts while he was on duty, drinking himself unconscious when he was off.

They lingered in the lobby, brushing snow from their shoulders. Evie stood before the glass case in the corner, examining the trophies inside, won in games—tug of war, battle of the barrel—at firemen’s festivals across the county. Hanging inside the case was a heavy wooden plaque carved with ornate letters: REMEMBER OUR FALLEN HEROES. The plaque was decorated with gold nameplates.

“Did you see this?” Evie asked, pointing.

Ray leaned close, his breath steaming the glass. His brother’s name was at the bottom: Ken Wojick, 1949–1992. No other fireman had died since.

“Come on,” he said, taking her hand. “Let’s go upstairs.”

They climbed the steps to the social floor. The room was decorated as if for a wedding: crepe paper streamers, Kleenex flowers; at the center of the room, hanging from the ceiling, a cardboard cutout in the shape of a wedding bell. A polka band was setting up in a corner; the drummer was a cousin of Pop’s. On one wall hung a hand-lettered sign: Congratulations Helen and John.

“Go sit down,” Ray told Evie. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

A card table had been set up near the door. Fran stood behind it, filling out name tags with a magic marker. Ray studied her a moment: stout, broad-bosomed; dark hair hanging in a braid down her back.

“Hey there,” he said, approaching the table.

She looked up. “J.R.,” she said, beaming.

His stomach dropped suddenly, like driving over Holy Roller Hill. J.R. was Kenny’s nickname for him, a character from a TV show Ray had never seen, about the crooked dealings of a wealthy oil baron.

“Hi, Franny,” he said, embracing her. She was heavier than he remembered, twice as big around as Evie or his mother. Her braid was shot through with gray.

“I’m glad you made it,” she said. “Mom and Pop are thrilled.”

Ray took the name tag she handed him and stuck it on the lapel of his jacket. “Are you sure it isn’t too much for them?” he asked. “All the”—he remembered Pop’s word—”excitement?”

Fran laughed. “Fifty years of marriage, I’d say they could use some excitement. Come on,” she said, taking his hand. “You’ve got to see this.”

She led him across the room to a table. On one end sat a pile of gifts; at the other, an elaborate, tiered wedding cake. Above the table hung a black-and-white photo, slightly out of focus. Ray leaned in to examine it. Pop in uniform, his skinny shoulders squared, like a boy trying to look bigger than he is. Balding already, with a wispy blond mustache, the kind teenagers grow to prove themselves. Ray’s mother in a simple dress, not white but pale; her face serious, her eyes sad. She was a tiny thing, narrow-waisted. It was hard to believe she’d carried a child.

“It was the only picture I could find,” said Fran. “Can you imagine? Married for fifty years and no wedding album.”

“Where’d it come from?” He had never seen a photo of the wedding; he’d believed none existed.

“Pop’s sister gave it to me.” Fran gave his hand a squeeze. “They didn’t have a wedding reception. No honeymoon. They just got married, and nobody paid any attention.”

Ray looked around the room. There seemed to be hundreds of Kleenex flowers. Fran must have been making them for weeks.

“The place looks great,” he said. “You did a great job.”

“Thanks.” Her eyes met his. “I wish Kenny was here to see it.”

He went downstairs to the Firemen’s Club and ordered a drink. “I’m not a member,” he told the bartender, a bearded man with a familiar face.

“That’s okay,” said the bartender. “I knew your brother.”

Ray colored. It was, he realized, the same bartender as last time. Four years ago, when Ray came to town for a high school reunion, Kenny had insisted on taking him for a drink at the Club. He’d ordered them each a shot and a beer, and for a moment the bartender had hesitated. He’d asked if Kenny was on duty that night.

“No, I ain’t on duty. Are you?” Kenny’s voice rising. “If you are, maybe act like a bartender and pour me a shot.” He turned to Ray. “It’s good to see you, buddy. Don’t see much of you anymore.”

“I’ve been busy.” It was the wrong thing to say, but he had no other answer. “I hired two new pups last week. I spend more time telling them what to do than it would take me to do it myself.” He was working for Exxon then, heading a crew of geologists. He told Kenny how he was thinking about striking out on his own.

“Good for you, J.R.” Kenny downed his shot. His skin looked rough; red capillaries bloomed at his cheeks and nostrils. He looks like an old man, Ray thought. An old drunk.

“You did the right thing, getting the hell out,” Kenny said. “Could be time for me to do the same.” The mines weren’t coming back, he said. People wanted oil; Fran couldn’t even sell a house with a coal furnace. She had gotten a real estate license, though who’d buy property in Bakerton, Ray couldn’t imagine.

Ray chugged his beer. He remembered a time—years ago, during a slowdown—when a group of miners picketed Lombardi’s Furniture because the store had converted from coal to oil heat. It seemed comical now: the miners’ sense of injury, their belief that picketing one store would make a difference.

“Where would you go?” he asked. “If you left Bakerton. Any ideas?”

Years later he would remember his brother’s odd smile, mouth closed to hide his missing tooth.

“I hear Texas is nice,” Kenny said.

Ray drained his glass, scanned behind the counter for the bartender. “Times are tough everywhere,” he said. “The drilling crews aren’t hiring. They’re talking about layoffs.”

Kenny frowned. “I thought you just hired a couple of guys. A couple of pups.”

“Geologists,” Ray said, red-faced. “College boys.”

The bartender came with two more beers—Iron City, brewed in Pittsburgh; what every bar in town poured automatically unless you asked for something different. Ray took out his wallet.

“I got it.” Kenny scrabbled in his pocket and laid a crumpled twenty on the counter. “I may not be good for much, but goddamn if I can’t still get my big brother drunk.”

Later—climbing the hill to his parents’ house with Kenny leaning on him like dead weight—Ray would regret that moment, the way he’d reached for his wallet. “I’m sorry, Ken,” he said, but by then his brother was barely conscious. Only later, when Ray laid him down on their parents’ couch, did he speak.

“That’s okay, J.R.,” he said. “It isn’t your fault.”

After dinner Fran pulled up a chair next to Ray. “Hi, stranger,” she said. “You used to come around a lot more before you struck it rich.” Across the room Evie emerged from the kitchen with a coffee pot, an apron wrapped twice around her small waist.

“I don’t blame you,” Fran continued. “It must be boring for Evie. God knows there isn’t much to do in this town. But maybe you could come by yourself once in awhile. Mom could use the company.”

Ray frowned. “Evie loves coming here. It’s not her. It’s me.” The words came out fast, too fast. “I can’t look anybody in the eye. Mom. Pop. You.”


“I could have done something for Kenny after he got laid off.” His heart hammered. Across the room the band tuned up. The sound seemed very far away.

Fran sighed. “Ray, there’s nothing you could have done.”

“I could have found him a job.” Tightness in his chest. “Then he wouldn’t have been fighting fires in the first place. He’d still be alive.”

“A job?” said Fran. “Around here?’

“In Houston.”

“Houston?” She laughed. “Kenny never would have gone to Houston. Neither of us would. Where would you get such an idea?”

“He asked me about it,” said Ray. “The last time I was home. I made excuses; but really, I didn’t want him down there. I didn’t want to deal with his problems. His drinking.” He met her eyes. “If I gave him a job, he would’ve come. He said so.”

Fran shrugged. “Kenny said a lot of things. Believe me; I heard it all. But nobody made him stay here. He stayed because he wanted to.”

Ray thought of his brother the way he’d last seen him, shoveling the sidewalk on Dixon Road in his old hunting jacket, a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth. Don’t be a stranger, he’d called as Ray pulled away from the curb.

“He loved being a fireman,” said Fran. “It made him feel alive. He said it was like being a soldier again.”

Ray nodded, remembering how Kenny had shown him around the equipment room. How proud he’d been. Ray imagined him suited up in the asbestos pants, the yellow jacket, climbing the stairs of the Commercial Hotel. The fire had started in the kitchen but appeared contained. Kenny had charged into a second-floor bedroom, and the floor had crumbled beneath him.

“Was he drinking that night?” Ray asked. “The night of the fire.”

Fran was silent. “He was always drinking,” she said finally. She took his hand in both of hers. “J.R., sooner or later you have to let go of things. Stop feeling bad about what you can’t undo.”

Ray colored. Her hands felt cool; for a moment he wished he could put them on his face, his cheeks burning with shame.

“I’m not just talking about Kenny,” she said. “When’s the last time you saw your boys?”

“Years. It’s been years.” He met her eyes. “Do you ever see them?”

“Sure. Ray Junior came with Georgette at Christmas. And Bryan comes every three months to give Mom her permanent.”

“You’re kidding.” Ray thought of the boy in the photo—a man now, with his diamond earring, his thinning hair. “He drives all the way out here—two hundred goddamn miles—to do Mom’s hair?”

“He’s done it for years. He’s a sweet kid, Ray. He turned out just fine.”

“Jesus.” Ray lowered his voice. “You know, I still can’t believe it. My son, a beautician. For Christ’s sake.”

Fran laughed. “You sound just like Pop. ‘What’s a big boy like that doing in a beauty shop?’” She shook her head. “He makes a good living. And there’s worse jobs. He’s not going to get himself killed giving permanents.”

Ray laughed too. Air filled his lungs; for the first time in hours, his chest relaxed.

“I failed them,” he said. “Just like I failed Kenny. And Mom and Pop. I’m not much of a son.”

Fran smiled. “You’re not dead yet.”

“I have some news,” he said. “Evie’s pregnant.”

Her eyes widened. “Oh, J.R. That’s wonderful.”

Wonderful, he thought. And then: Yes, it is a wonder. His life, he knew, had been unfairly blessed. Over and over he’d been saved from what he was born to: fatherlessness, in a time when that meant something. The mines. Vietnam, and whatever horrors had followed Kenny back from that place. He was saved first by Pop, then by Georgette; deliverance he’d neither asked for nor deserved nor recognized when it came. Now, again, he was being saved.

“I thought I was done with all that,” he said. “After I flunked the first time.”

Fran laughed. “That’s what flunked means. You do it over, whether you like it or not.”

“You don’t think I’m too old, do you?”

She considered this. “No,” she said slowly. “I’d say you’re finally old enough.”

Cake was served; the music started. “Here we go,” Ray told Evie. He’d been exposed to polkas periodically throughout his childhood—at church festivals, at family weddings; he felt he’d built up a tolerance, that he’d been vaccinated. Evie had no idea what she was in for: the bad singing and dim-witted lyrics, the jaunty accordions and shrill clarinets. A couple more hours of this, he thought, and she’s going to lose her mind.

The singer stepped up to the mike and said something in Polish. Then, in English—in the same flat, tuneless tenor as every polka singer Ray had ever heard—he sang.

      Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself.


    It’s later than you think.

Two by two the guests got up to dance: relatives and neighbors, Pop’s union buddies, elderly couples Ray recognized from St. Casimir’s. He hadn’t seen these people in years. Their broad Polish faces had aged little; only their bodies had changed. The women were stout, or stooped and frail; the men moved stiffly, leaning on their wives. They suffered from Miner’s Knee, Miner’s Hip, Miner’s Back; in everyday life they walked with canes; but somehow—only God knew how—they’d gotten up to dance.

      Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself.


    It’s later than you think.

The floor filled with couples. The singer whooped into the microphone. Pop’s cousin Joe, eighty that spring, tapped gamely at the drums.

“Look,” Evie said, pointing.

Ray blinked. His mother and father had joined the dancers on the floor. Pop quick despite his bad knee, arthritis in his hips; Mom almost girlish in her flowered dress. The other couples stepped back to clear their path, and in a moment they were the only dancers on the floor. The singer said something in Polish; the crowd responded, clapping in time with the music. Mom and Pop whirled around the floor. Her white curls bounced; her round face was flushed with pleasure.

“She looks beautiful,” said Evie, and it was true. His mother, who’d lost her first love and married her second, surrendered her good name in a town where nothing was forgotten. She had been hurt; undoubtedly she had regrets. Still she got up to dance.

Ray and Evie left Bakerton the next morning. Bells rang in the distance: the early mass at St. Casimir’s. The air smelled of wet earth, an early spring. Ray hoisted their suitcases to his shoulder; arm in arm, Evie and his mother followed him outside.

“Thanks for everything,” said Ray, kissing his mother’s cheek. He thought of Bryan driving in from Cleveland, bringing hairpins and rollers to give her her permanent.

He loaded the suitcases into the rental car. Pop leaned against the porch railing, wearing Kenny’s old hunting jacket.

“Safe trip,” he said, offering his hand. “Don’t be a stranger.”

Ray turned the Ford around in the narrow road, scattering gravel; he honked the horn and waved. The town disappeared behind him in the rearview mirror: Dixon Road, with its company houses; the fire hall; the Goodwill store. The dirt lane behind the high school, where Pop had taught him to drive; Holy Roller Hill, where he and Kenny had ridden their sleds. He passed the turnoff to the deserted road behind the reservoir, where he and Georgette had parked late at night, where Bryan had been conceived. At the edge of town he passed McNulty’s Exxon station, its concrete wall painted with large letters: TOUGH TIMES NEVER LAST. TOUGH PEOPLE DO.

He reached for Evie’s hand; she placed his on her belly. I’ll do better this time, he thought. I’m not dead yet. They would land in Houston at dusk and drive into the city for dinner, to a new Thai place that had opened downtown. The streets would be quiet on a Sunday night, resting for the week ahead. But Monday morning they would come alive, and Ray with them; himself still new, and still becoming.


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