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Favorite Son

ISSUE:  Fall 2010

Buck season opened—still does—on the Monday after Thanksgiving. In Bakerton it is a holiday of sorts. School was closed for the day, and I reported to Keener’s at 4 a.m. to serve eggs and sausages and countless cups of coffee to men in orange vests and jackets. Every table was full despite heavy competition from annual pancake breakfasts at the AmVets, the Elks, and the Moose.

On Opening Day the woods rang with rifle shots. Deer were dragged, hefted into pickup trucks. Taxidermy shops did brisk business. Enterprising freelancers advertised with homemade yard signs: deer processed fast and cheap. The biggest kills were photographed for the Bakerton Herald. The following Monday its front page ran a jubilant headline: A New Record for Opening Week. No one said, and I somehow failed to notice, that it was a question of simple mathematics. In my grandparents’ day, the Baker Brothers coal company had built hundreds of company houses, and the mines had employed nearly every man in town. But that year, when I was a sophomore in high school, Baker Six closed—“mined out,” they said. The Six was Baker’s largest mine, and suddenly nine hundred men were cashing unemployment checks, nine hundred men who now had plenty of time to hunt deer.

At the center of the page, just above the fold, was a photo of Mitch Stanek in his backyard. Beside him a massive ten-pointer—a magnificent male specimen—hung upside down from a tree. In the grainy photo Mitch was handsome as a movie actor, his blond hair shaggy, his cheeks smudged with two-day beard. A woman named Charlene Dodd had been sent to take his picture, and she had flirted a little, asked him to take off his vest and cap. Mitch had a certain way of standing, head and shoulders back, left fist pressed to his upper thigh. He’d been photographed many times in this stance, for the paper and for his high school yearbook, some twenty years before.

Back in Mitch’s heyday, my father had advised the yearbook staff. In our basement was a full set of the Banner dating to before I was born. As a teenager I studied them like lost scriptures. I laughed at the outdated hairstyles, but really I was looking for wisdom, some secret to navigating a world where I felt misplaced, ridiculous, and shunned. I walked the hallways between classes thinking about my hair. It was blonde and baby-fine and, despite my best efforts each morning with a curling iron and Aqua-Net, always felt flat by noon. I still wore what was known as a training bra, a garment designed for optimists. After three years I saw it for what it was: underwear for girls whose friends had breasts.

Mitch Stanek’s photo was all over his yearbook, usually in a numbered jersey. As a senior he’d captained teams in football, basketball, and baseball. For Bakerton it had been a winning season. Twenty years later, the trophies were still on display, filling an entire glass case at school.

He was going to set the world on fire, my mother said, looking over my shoulder as I read. Now he’s out of work like everyone else. Mitch Stanek had been her student in sophomore English, a job she’d left, as female teachers used to, when she had her own children. Now she spent her days nursing my brother Teddy, who’d been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and was in and out of hospitals. When she spoke of school sports or those who watched or played them, a sourness crept into her voice.

My father remembered Mitch differently. That kid, now. He was something. He spoke softly, though we were alone in his car and my mother couldn’t possibly have heard. On Saturday mornings Dad gave me driving lessons. The car’s ashtray was always full, its radio set to the local AM station, which had broadcast Bakerton High football the night before. (On Friday nights he visited my grandmother in a nursing home two towns over. I imagined him kissing her good-bye at five minutes to eight, just before kickoff time.) He was the sort of father who’d have attended every game and most of the practices, if his own son were able to play.

We sat idling in the high school parking lot, Dad lost in memory, my driving lesson temporarily forgotten.

Mitch Stanek could have made it. He was the real deal. Best thing ever to come out of Bakerton.

My father was a gentle soul and meant nothing by it. I didn’t point out that Bakerton had also produced me.

When Mitch was first laid off, he put in his name at Beth Steel, for a job that would also prove expendable but at the time seemed as solid as the stuff the mills turned out. Beth Steel never called, a fact that baffled him at first, when bad luck was still new to him. “We’ll wait it out,” he told his wife. Unemployment would carry them through the summer. At the time he believed what everyone believed: that his old job would return, that Baker would break ground on a new mine, bigger and better than the Six.

She knew better. It was Deena, after all, who had to stretch the unemployment checks to cover the car and boat payments, the mortgage, everything their four boys ate and played with and wore. She’d worked for a time sweeping up hair at Ruth Rizzo Beauty. Now, with her new license, she opened her own salon in the basement. While Mitch waited for the phone to ring, she worked six days a weeks giving haircuts and permanents, but no hairdresser could earn what a miner had.

By August she’d had enough and sent him away. She got the idea from Cheryl Berks, whose husband had found a construction job in the Virginia suburbs. Lou Berks shared a cheap apartment with two other laid-off miners, and there was room for a fourth. On weekends the men piled into somebody’s car and drove the four hours back to Pennsylvania, where their kids, at least, seemed happy to see them again.

A temporary arrangement, Deena had called it, but after a few months Mitch was beginning to wonder. He’d suggested moving the whole family to Virginia, but his wife seemed not to hear him. Of course, he knew the reason. The goddamned house.

So each Friday night, exhausted, his back aching, Mitch got behind the wheel and drove back to Bakerton. His truck burned gas at a sickening rate, but he allowed himself this one extravagance. After a week in the crowded apartment, he couldn’t face sharing a ride with the guys.

It was on one of these visits—the first Saturday in December—that Mitch got his deer. Afterwards he stopped at the Vets for a few beers to celebrate.

“How many?” Deena demanded when he made his way home.

“Five,” Mitch lied: he’d had twice that, but beers cost half what they did in Virginia, so he felt justified. Deena merely frowned.

“Whatsa matter?” he asked, smelling a fight and ready for it, but Deena didn’t have time to argue. My mother was waiting in the basement, ten minutes early for her perm.

“Mitch was livid,” my mother reported later, by phone, to her friend the school nurse. His move to Virginia had revived old gossip: that Deena was ready to divorce him, that he’d hit her with a closed hand. It wasn’t hard to picture. Mitch was a big man, Deena so petite she wore shoes from the girls’ department. Even after four babies she was tiny as a doll. Though no fan of Mitch Stanek, my mother called the rumors baseless. True, Deena was once seen with a bruise on her shoulder, but no one had to wear a sundress. No one would, my mother maintained, if she had something shameful to hide.

She went to Deena’s every Saturday afternoon for a wash and set. The beauty shop had its own entrance, so she never got a look at the rest of the house, a handsome split-level on the outskirts of town. My mother admired it, though she allowed that it was bigger than any family needed, with a three-car garage to hold Mitch’s snowmobiles and as many bathrooms as children. She was not alone in this opinion. Most of Bakerton still lived in company houses, bought from the mines and disguised with porches and aluminum siding, but easy to spot by the familiar floor plan, three rooms upstairs and three rooms down.

“Mitch thinks we should sell,” Deena confessed as she rinsed my mother’s hair at the sink. And sure enough, a few weeks later the house was listed in the Herald, at a price the town found insulting. No buyer could be found; according to my mother, this was just as Deena had intended. She wasn’t about to lose that house.

She came from poor people. We all did, I later learned, though at the time I thought we had rich and poor like any other place. Even by local standards the Vances lived meanly, in a duplex behind the gas company, a dark street loud with fuel trucks. Deena’s mother worked in the dress factory, and the United Mineworkers sent her a monthly check from the widows fund. With half as many children, she might have lived in reasonable comfort.

Deena was the oldest of six, a little beauty. As a girl she resembled the actress Kim Novak, except that Kim dyed her hair and Deena was a natural blonde. She met Mitch in high school when she was just a freshman. Mitch was a junior then, busy with his various sports. In the summers he worked as a lifeguard. At the town swimming pool, in pairs or threes, girls in bikinis approached his chair, kept him company during his shift. As they spoke Mitch’s eyes wandered, alert for swimmers in distress. He never showed the slightest interest in dating, until Deena Vance.

My mother and the school nurse, who followed student romances with an interest that now seems peculiar, shared in the general astonishment when Mitch took Deena to the winter ball. “For heaven’s sake,” my mother huffed. “Why her?” The Staneks were a solid family. Mitch’s father, a past president of the mineworkers local, was a lector in our church. (Even now, when I read the letters of St. Paul, I hear them in Herk Stanek’s gruff voice.) Mitch was that rare thing in Bakerton, a boy with a future. When he played in the state basketball championships, scouts had been seen in the stands. In bars and barbershops, speculation was rampant: basketball or football? Penn State or Pitt? The question wasn’t whether he’d go to college but which one.

At Bakerton High the matter was debated in the faculty lounge, in a cloud of cigarette smoke. Like the crowd at a junior high dance, the teachers split along gender lines, women at the long tables near the window, men standing around the coffee machine. They spoke of many things—local affairs, movies, and politics—but were most animated when discussing their students. The men knew how far Mitch could throw a football. The women were more interested in Deena Vance.

“It won’t last,” my mother told the school nurse. “He’s got bigger fish to fry.”

My mother was wrong.

Mitch and Deena became inseparable. They walked hand in hand through the school corridors. In the summer she rode with him to work. Girls no longer approached the lifeguard chair, not with Deena stretched out on a towel a few yards away, eyes closed, working on her tan. Every hour Mitch took a break. To empty the pool he blew two long blasts on his whistle. He approached Deena’s towel and knelt at her feet. She was fifteen years old, beautiful and naked but for two bright strips of nylon. Mitch Stanek was a giant fallen to his knees.

“You wait,” my mother told the school nurse. “Wait until school starts.”

By school she meant football. The first home game was the last weekend in August, a sultry night; the spectators wore shorts and tank tops. A few bare chests were painted in the team’s colors, black and gold like the Steelers’. In that crowd, the two men in suits were as conspicuous as drag queens. More scouts were spotted a week later, and again in October. In November Mitch made his decision: not Pitt or Penn State, but Florida State, a choice that blinded the town with its sheer exoticism.

Could Mitch play in hot weather?

And what about poor Deena?

I imagine her grim face as they walked the halls of Bakerton High, Mitch stopping to receive hearty handshakes, the squeals of disbelief and delight. The cattier girls congratulating Deena—You’ll be down there every month to visit!— knowing she couldn’t afford bus fare to Altoona, never mind an airline ticket.

Florida gave Mitch the hero treatment, flying his parents down to have a look at the campus, paying for their meals and airfare and Mitch’s new clothes. The Herald ran a story on page 1, with a picture of Mitch in his new jacket and tie. It was the first time he’d been photographed out of uniform.

He left Bakerton two weeks after graduation, in time for summer training camp. Herk drove him to the airport in Pittsburgh, with Deena riding along. Mitch’s sister took a photo of his plane taking off; it was printed in the next week’s Herald. stanek heads south! town’s favorite son marches on.

Fall came. For three months of Saturdays the town was glued to the television. Mitch sat out two games but—my father would remember it always—threw a touchdown in the third. The elementary school classes wrote him letters of congratulation. Then Mitch came home at Thanksgiving and announced he was quitting school.

Soon all of Bakerton had heard about the drugs down there, how his roommate smoked marijuana at night while Mitch was sleeping, how just breathing that smoke made him feel sick and crazy. In bars and barber shops, men debated Mitch’s decision. The young ones called him foolish. Their fathers argued that you didn’t mess with drugs.

“She’s pregnant,” my mother told the school nurse. “Mark my words.”

Mitch got his union card by Christmas, but a full year passed before he and Deena married. Once again my mother was wrong.

I grew up and forgot these stories. I went away to college, and Bakerton receded from my imagination. Like Mitch Stanek, I was a scholarship case, but I had no intention of wasting my chance.

At holidays, at school breaks, I came back to visit. Driving down Main Street was like visiting a beloved aunt in hospice, a breath away from the grave. Baker Four had closed, and the Eleven would soon follow. At Baker Nine the men worked three days a week. For Sale signs appeared on lawns, in windows, but no one was buying. Families divided, as the Staneks had done. At Bakerton High the classes were shrinking. My father took the early retirement the state offered, thankful for his pension, grateful to get out while he could.

At college I worked and studied; I came back jaded and worldly from a junior year abroad. After graduation I visited less frequently. My parents aged before my eyes, gradually and then rapidly. One year, at Christmas, my father was shockingly gaunt. His dry cough had grown into something more ominous. He had suffered through a hard month of treatment, but the prognosis was clear.

For his benefit we walked through the old rituals: Bing Crosby on the stereo, the tree hung with familiar ornaments, a Popsicle-stick angel my brother had made before he died. By Christmas Eve my father was exhausted, his cough nearly constant. “The Lord will forgive me,” he said. “You two go ahead.” With a creeping dread I dressed for midnight Mass. I had been a college atheist; now I lacked even that conviction. I hadn’t been inside a church since Teddy’s funeral. Under other circumstances I would have declined politely, but that year I didn’t have the heart.

The church was crowded, families reunited for the holiday. We squeezed into a pew near the front. I recognized Mitch and Deena Stanek with their four sons, arranged in order of height, smallest to tallest, like a set of Russian dolls. From behind Mitch still resembled a college athlete, his thick neck and broad shoulders, his blond hair untouched by gray. I’d seen his truck parked behind the church, one of many with Virginia plates. Watching him, I was filled with an old longing I’d nearly forgotten: to be Mitch and Deena both, not now but a lifetime ago, when they were beguiling and rare.

I was thinking such thoughts when Father Veltri swept down the aisle, a stout little man in white holiday vestments. He stopped just ahead of me and leaned in to touch Mitch’s shoulder, so close that I could smell his aftershave.

“Merry Christmas, Mitchell,” he whispered as they shook hands. “I have a favor to ask.” He handed over a leather-bound book, the page marked with a red ribbon: Paul’s epistle to Titus. I knew it almost by heart.

“I’d be grateful if you could read this,” said the priest. “In memory of your father. Herk would be proud.”

Mitch’s face reddened. “I’m sorry, Father. I’m not much of a public speaker.”

“Come on,” said Deena. “Pop would want you to.”

“I said no.” Mitch’s whisper was harsher, somehow, than if he’d shouted. Deena looked as stricken as I felt. Even then, in my secular phase, I couldn’t imagine saying no to a priest.

Father Veltri, apparently, couldn’t imagine hearing it. “It isn’t long,” he told Mitch, pointing to a line on the page. “Come to the lectern after I say the blessing. I appreciate it, Mitchell.” He left the book in Mitch’s hand and swept away in a rustle of satin, a plump little swan.

A moment later the Mass started. The aging choir warbled the opening hymn. Without a word to Deena, Mitch turned his back to the altar. Stone-faced, in front of God and everybody, he marched out of the church.

I never saw Mitch Stanek again. That spring my father succumbed to lung cancer, and I went back to Bakerton for the funeral. The day was warm and springlike, the snow nearly melted. I borrowed my mother’s car and spent the afternoon on the country roads where I’d first learned to drive. I saw, then, that the Staneks’ house stood empty. They had finally moved to Virginia, enrolled their boys in school there. A Century 21 sign was spiked into the front yard.

That Christmas Eve, after church, my mother and I had ridden home in silence. The Mass had droned on for more than an hour, but Mitch did not reappear. Deena had gone to the lectern in his place, her voice shaking a little on the first words: Dearly beloved, the grace of God our savior has appeared to all men.

“He can’t read,” I said.

My mother kept her eyes on the road. A light snow was falling, and her reflexes aren’t what they used to be. Driving now requires her full attention, especially after dark.

“That’s why he dropped out of college. Drugs had nothing to do with it.”

Still she didn’t respond.

“You were his teacher.” Sophomore English: The Red Badge of Courage, The Scarlet Letter, Billy Budd, books Mitch Stanek had been tested on. His comprehension had been judged adequate. He’d been given a passing grade.

Finally my mother spoke.

“He had a problem. Some form of dyslexia, I believe. It was never diagnosed.” With great care she braked and signaled. “Times were different then, Rebecca. We didn’t know about that sort of thing.”

“But he graduated.” You let him, I thought.

“It wasn’t right,” she said, “but it seemed best. I agonized over it at the time. Now I’m not sure it made any difference.”

I saw her point. Without a diploma Mitch would have mined coal anyway, been laid off anyway. He’d have lost only those few months in Florida, his picture in the paper, the enduring legend the town still cherished. For Bakerton it had been a net gain. For Mitch Stanek, the outcome would have been roughly the same.

She pulled the car into the driveway and cut the headlights. “Ed doesn’t know,” she said, and I thought of the radio in his old Buick: my father listening to the games in secret, away from my mother’s disdain, her caustic and sometimes merciless tongue. The local heroes—the Mitch Staneks—had been her favorite targets; but in the end she was not merciless. She left my father his idols. Maybe she’d wanted Mitch to win, just like everyone else did.

We sat a long moment in the dark car. The white flakes landed like news from heaven: notes from elsewhere, fallen from the stars.


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