by John Sheehy
An excerpt from The Good Men Project Anthology [receive a copy free with Premium Membership]
Helena, July 2006
For many years, because he is who he is and I who I am, I was not even aware that I never had told my father I love him. I want to tell him now, but it has taken me weeks to get around to it—mulling it over, thinking about when the right time would be, about how it should be said, with what kind of look on my face and what kind of posture. I want to say it so it stays said. I want it to be final.
I have put it off until the last minute of this trip home to Helena, Montana, until this morning, as I am about to get on a plane. Dad and I got up early and had coffee in the kitchen while Rita, my mom, got ready to go to the Y for her swim. I picked up my bag and put it in the back of Dad’s car. Then I came back into the house to say good-bye to Mom. We hugged and got a little misty, Mom and I, said how glad we were to see each other, and then pulled away from each other. As I moved toward the door Mom stood behind me, silent, watching me go.
Dad drove me to the airport and then came in with me.
It is early, and because of the new security rules we can’t go to the gate where the seats are, so we hang around on our feet, waiting for my flight to be called. We look at our shoes and chat. I know Dad is happy to be here, happy that I have taken an interest in him, in his history and in Butte, the high-mountain mining town in Montana where he grew up. We talk about his name, about how nobody in Butte ever called anybody by their real name. So, instead of John, he was always Skeff, after the Irish patriot. Somehow he is Skeff more than Dad when he tells me more funny stories about Butte, about his life as a lawyer, about his father, Con. I try to tell some funny stories, too. We are laughing when I hear the voice on the speaker announcing my flight. Time to go. Looking at my shoes, I tell Dad I’d better get moving. He reaches out with his right hand, his good hand. I shake it, and when I pull my hand away there is a fifty-dollar bill in it. “Spend it on Jill,” he says. I nod; Jill is my wife. “I will.”
As he walks away I think it is now or never. I shout after him. It’s louder than I’d planned, more awkward than I’d hoped. “Dad!” I shout. “Dad! I love you!”
He turns only half around, and when he does he stumbles a little bit. For just part of a second, for just long enough for me to register the image, Skeff looks like an old man. But then he doesn’t anymore, and he smiles, and he is still smiling and already turning away when he replies, “Thanks.”
Helena, June 2005
I thought I had lost it, had lost it all, when I realized that I’d let the batteries die in the recorder. A whole day with Dad and Mom, that whole day in Anaconda and Butte, in May last year, tramping through all those old gallus frames and all those old memories, gone now, blinked out, no longer held in that magical electrical suspension inside the digital voice recorder.
But I changed the batteries and it was all still there, Mom and Dad and me and a clear spring day, all safely embedded in a tiny mineral vault of mysteriously etched silicon. I put the earphones in and pressed play, and I can hear it all again.
I had missed too much already, lost too much. I am my father’s youngest son, the eleventh of eleven children, so it is not my fault that I missed out on most of his life. But it is partly my fault—and, I suppose, partly his, although that hardly matters anymore—that I missed out on so much of the rest.
Now he is eighty-seven, and I am almost forty, and many of the things I thought were important when I was eighteen don’t seem important anymore, and many of the things I thought were not, do. I can’t quite say what I’ve missed, but I want to know things. I want to know him if I can, and now, while I can. And, if I can’t, I want to know stories, want to know what happened. I want to know about Butte.
I had ridden my bike out to the Wal-Mart in Helena to buy the recorder because I didn’t want to miss anything that day, didn’t want to miss any more. I had put in fresh batteries and plugged in the throat mike that came with it. Then I put the recorder in the inside pocket of Dad’s jacket and clipped the throat mike to his lapel. There, I thought. Now I can’t miss anything.
In the car the mike was useless. Dad said some things here and there, but I can’t make them all out now, as I listen with the earphones. The damn mike is too sensitive. It has no judgment. It can’t tell the difference between Dad’s voice and the noise of the road or the noise a crumpling candy-bar wrapper makes in the front seat. Before I put the recorder in Dad’s jacket pocket I had set it to voice-activated mode, so it would turn on only when Dad talked. But as I listen on the earphones I realize that the recorder was on the whole time because it could register Dad breathing. I could hear his ragged, desperate gasps.
A microphone can’t ignore that sound the way I do, the way the family does. And the Harumpup! Dad makes every thirty seconds or so when he clears the phlegm out of his throat is so loud I have to take the earphones out of my ears. I listen to the whole recording, all eight hours of it, with the earphones resting on my temples.
On the recording, we are driving a familiar road. They’re all familiar roads to Dad, but this one especially so, the sixty miles over the Boulder pass from Helena to Butte that he’s driven 5,000 times. We drive through Boulder on the other side of the pass, drive through Basin, drive down from the mountain of my father’s old age, back over the hill into the high valley of his boyhood.
Aware of the mike, he plays the tour guide, points to the now-defunct hospital for retarded children in Boulder, remembers for me the story of a case he once had involving a woman who was sent there. “A horrible place,” he shudders. “Just an awful place. Poor woman.” Harumpup!
We’re going to Anaconda for a funeral before we go to Butte. So we get off the interstate at the exit with the Racetrack sign. Dad points to the sign and tells me the story about Marcus Daly, one of the copper kings and the founder of the Anaconda Copper Mining Company. He tells about how Daly loved horses and raised his racing stock out here. He tells the story about Daly’s favorite horse, Tammany, how back when Daly pretty much owned Anaconda he had a mosaic of Tammany inlaid in the floor of the grand lobby of the town’s Montana Hotel. Anybody who stepped on Tammany’s head had to buy drinks for the house. “Racetrack,” Dad says. “This is where the swells used to go when I was a kid—Harumpup! —This is where you went if you wanted to have a big time, get away from Butte.”
We drive on toward Anaconda. Dad points out a big sandstone building blooming by itself and out of place on the side of the road at the turnoff to Warm Springs. “That was William Clark’s bank there,” he says. Clark was another one of the copper kings, Marcus Daly’s nemesis and opposite number in every way. He was cool where Daly was warm, acerbic where Daly was funny, angry where Daly was kind, but Irish, too, as Irish as Daly and so fitting with Daly into the pantheon of Butte Irish history.” That’s where Clark put his money, at least at first. He had too much, too much to trust to anybody else, so he started his own bank to hold it and started making loans, buying the place up. Had one up in Deer Lodge, too, a bigger one, the first one.”
For a long space in the recording, then, I can’t make out what Dad is saying. I hear Mom beside him, poking her head up from the crossword, asking an occasional question. For fifteen minutes, though, it’s mostly in…out…in…out…Harumpup!
Long before we reach Anaconda we can see the smokestack. It’s still there, even though the smelter’s been defunct for almost twenty years. Dad says nothing. He doesn’t need to. I can remember him pointing to it when I was a kid, his right hand shaped like a gun as he aimed at it over the steering wheel he held loosely in his broken left hand. “See that?” he said back then. “That’s the largest smokestack in the world. Did you know that the rim of that stack is wide enough for an airplane to land on? A four-horse team, hitched up side by side, could walk around the rim of that chimney without ever getting close enough to the edge of it to know they weren’t right here on the ground. That’s something to see, isn’t it?”
On the recording I can hear my own voice: “What’s that over there, Dad?” We are passing a group of buildings to the right of the road, on the other side of the railroad spur. There are five of them, one big one and four smaller ones around it, all dull red brick and blank concrete. It’s an institution of some kind, afloat in an empty parking lot with grass growing in the cracks and saplings growing in the potholes. Many of the windows of the buildings are broken, and the rest are covered with gray road grime or plywood. The front door of the biggest building is chained and padlocked. “Dad? What’s that over there?”
He doesn’t look. “That?—Harumpup!—Oh, that’s Galen. I thought you knew that. That was the old TB hospital. That’s where Con died.”
Anaconda, May 2005
It’s not that they don’t care. It’s just that they’ve done this so often, have been to so many funerals now, have put so many of their friends and relatives under the ground. They know what it means now, and perhaps what it doesn’t; know that their friend, their mother or father, their brother or sister, is not to be sought in the mute limp thing that lies before them in the box, is not to be found behind the slack flesh of what before was a face, on which now is painted a caricature of contrived and eyeless piety.
Skeff and Rita walk up to the casket and look in. Each kneels before it to make a quick and silent prayer. I follow suit—I know the drill, even though I never knew the man—and, as they did, I turn away while still making the sign of the cross. Then the three of us shuffle with folded hands and downcast eyes to the back of the empty room in which the casketed man is almost finished being waked. His funeral will immediately follow the wake.
Skeff and Rita make small talk, sitting sideways in their folding chairs with their arms hung over the plastic backs, looking at their shoes and speaking in low tones of ordinary things: memories, children, grandchildren. Sometimes they laugh, almost silently. Skeff talks about the man in the box and his children, about people he has known in Anaconda, about Anaconda generally. “Tell you what,” he says softly, as he sits with his elbows on his knees and his eyes on the floor, “they’re famous here for sweet potato pie. When you’re in Anaconda, you should always try to get some sweet potato pie.” He leans back in his chair and is silent. He watches one of his feet tap absently against the other.
We had pulled into Anaconda about ten that morning and, since we were too early to go to the funeral home, we went for a drive around town. In many ways the town looked the same as the last time I saw it, sometime in the ’80s, when the smelter had only just closed and the reality of the Company’s abandonment had not yet quite sunk in here or in Butte, either. Anaconda is still overshadowed by the smelter, and the first sign you see of the town is still the stack, that huge brick phallus visible from many miles away, but you fail to realize its true enormity until you’re right under it. And still there is the slag, everywhere you look, huge heaps of black burnt rock, twenty and thirty and forty feet high and lined up in serried rows miles long all around the smelter. This is what’s left of Butte that wasn’t copper, I thought.
The buildings were all there, but Anaconda was gone. People were still there, though not anywhere near as many as in the ’80s, much less the ’40s or ’50s, when this town was as bustling as Butte was, and the union jobs at the smelter could give 10,000 families a good living. But the people we saw today looked more like survivors than anything else, like people who managed to live through an apocalypse, people who woke up one day to the stark and simple revelation that their world was no longer there, who woke up one other day not long after that to the more sobering realization that it wasn’t coming back. A few of the houses in Anaconda were freshly painted and well kept, but these only served to highlight the sadness of the rest, the houses that seemed to be relaxing entropically into the slag. Like the slag itself, they seemed light and hollowed-out, leeched of what was valuable in them, blackened and slackly and complacently falling apart.
As we drove through town, Skeff pointed in his familiar way—with his hand like a pistol—over the steering wheel or across the dashboard to objects in his memory. “That was where. . .” he said, and “Over there. . .” But what was there and over there were slag piles now, or broken, empty houses, or the shells of beater cars in the yards, or an old man shuffling down the avenue on his way to the bar or to the church or to the funeral. After a while Skeff didn’t talk anymore, retreating into his private thoughts behind the ragged sound of his own breathing. Every fifteen minutes or so he took a hit on the inhaler and then cleared his throat. He reached without thinking to the key chain hanging from the dashboard to finger the small rosary on it. In the rearview mirror I could see his lips moving almost imperceptibly: Hail Mary full of grace.
“It’s an old man’s town,” he said, out of nowhere. “It wasn’t always. But it’s an old man’s town now.”
When the funeral service is over, when the Mass has been said and our Communion taken and the pallbearers have carried the body out to the hearse on the street, we rise with the rest and move toward the doors. A lot of old folks are in the crowd. Rita and Skeff stop to chat with a few of them, to say hi and catch up briefly over handshakes and quiet smiles. There are a few people my age and younger in the crowd, and most of them, like me, are quiet. We are along for the ride, and we maintain a respectful, overly solicitous distance from the old folks and their doings and their dyings. We wait, and the crowd moves us slowly toward the door and out.
“Well,” Skeff says, “we’d better get down to the lunch. Better hop-to. There’s sure to be a sweet potato pie.”
Absarokee, July 2005
On the voice recorder I can hear Skeff singing, as he’s always done, singing while he drives, singing while he moves, those old sentimental songs.
If you ever go across the sea to Ireland,
Then maybe at the closing of your day,
You will sit and watch the moonrise over Claddagh,
And see the sun go down on Galway Bay.
Skeff’s voice is not as strong as it once was. Some of the high notes are too high for him, and there’s a breathiness now, a tremor, an uncertainty that wasn’t there thirty years ago, when I first remember hearing him sing this song in the front seat of another car driving to or from Butte. Now I have heard it so many times I know all the words and I know what he’ll do with it. I know he’ll throw a little Bing Crosby vibrato into Claddagh, enough to make you stop there and consider the sound of that word, how it sounds like the name of a woman. I know he’ll hold the high note on down and then load the dice, dip into what he’d call the schmaltz bucket by slowing down dramatically on Galway Baaay. And I know he’ll sing it again, and again, with different der Bingle flourishes each time, with some boo-boo-boos or some comic asides, until he gets tired of the sound of it or picks up another of the 500 tunes in his head.
Sitting at a desk in the family cabin in Absarokee, I set down the headphones but leave the voice recorder on. From the table behind me I can hear his voice rising tinny and false out of the cheap headphone speakers while I dial his number in Helena. I want to talk to him, to check some details. The phone rings and rings, and then he picks up, and for a moment I am confused by the double sound of his voice in the here and now on the phone and behind me, singing, in the past. But that passes in a second, and we talk. He sounds happy to hear from me, happy to talk more about Butte, about the old days.
Out of the headphones, faintly, I can hear him starting “Melancholy Baby.” His voice is sweet and sad and slow.
You shouldn’t grieve; try and believe
Life is always sunshine when the heart beats true.
Be of good cheer, smile through your tears,
When you’re sad it makes me feel the same as you.
I ask him if he remembers the name of the guy who held his hand on after the accident. ”Yeah, sure, it was Mutt Lowney, he says.
“Mutt?” I ask. “What was his real name? Do you remember?”
As far as he knows, Mutt was his real name. That’s what everybody called him. “Saved my life,” he says, “I suppose.”
I ask him again about Anna, his mother. What year did she come to Butte? “Nineteen fourteen,” he says. He tells me about her sister, his Aunt Kate, who had come out before Anna and prepared the way for them, for Anna and then her younger sister, Nora. “Nora’s the one married a Radamaker in Butte,” he says. “You know the Radamakers, all the Radamakers, they’re all your second cousins.” I remember meeting a few Radamakers over the years, at weddings and funerals, but I can’t put a face to any of them. I write the name down, try to remember it. I’m starting to feel a little lost.
On the voice recorder I hear the old big finish.
Every cloud must have a silver lining,
Wait until the sun shines through.
Smile, my honey dear, while I kiss away each tear,
Or else I shall be melancholy too.
Dad tells me the story again about how on the day Anna arrived the miners’ union hall was blown up, how Frankie Curran, the mayor, had come to the hall in the evening to find it already full of drunk and angry miners talking strike, how Frankie Curran pled for calm, how one of the miners said, “Go to hell,” as a warning, maybe, and then the bunch of them threw Frankie Curran out the second-story window. For the next twenty-four hours, Dad says, the miners ran wild, drinking, running through the streets, swearing at each other, shooting at each other, killing each other. They stole the safe out of the union house and one of them poured a bottle of nitroglycerin on it. Turned out the bottle was full of only whiskey, so they had to settle for just plain dynamite. They missed the whiskey, though, after.
In the morning a wide-eyed Anna looked out over the smoking hill, smelled the black powder and the cordite in the air, and asked her sister Kate, “Ah, Lord, is’t always like this here?”
Behind me his voice breaks into a swing pace with a familiar laugh in it.
Shape like a melon and a face like a collie!
Oh, come to me my melon-collie baby!
On the phone they come out of him again, the old stories, all the bits and pieces of him and the times before him, all connected but all random, all in pieces still.
He tells me in an aside, almost, that Con lost his eye in the mine before Dad was born. I am surprised nobody ever told me this, that it never came up before. I can almost hear Dad shrug his shoulders on the other end of the line. What’s there to say about a lost eye? Or a lost hand, even if it was his own left hand he almost lost in a car accident when he was eighteen. Well, this is the way it’ll be now. Now this is the way it will be. Why talk about it?
As Dad talks to me I think of him in Butte, as a boy and as an old man, visiting, of his days there growing up somehow overlapping with the days we used to spend at ball games when I was a boy, the day we spent in Butte last spring remembering, like three photographs of the same face all superimposed on each other. I remember how he knew everybody in Butte, always, and everybody still seemed to know him. “How sh’go?” they’d say to each other, and “Good ’n’ you?” back. “Tap ’er light,” they’d say when they meant good-bye.
Dad tells me funny stories on the phone. He’d tell me only funny ones if he could, I suppose. Maybe he thinks that’s all I want to hear, or maybe that’s really how it was for him, mostly funny, mostly fun. He tells me how when Con ran for county coroner in 1938 the polls showed he got all the votes in their Virginia Street precinct but four. He tells me how, afterward, Anna sat at the kitchen table poring over the tally, saying under her breath over and over again, “I wonder who the thraithors were?”
We talk for a while about their brogues, about Irish, the sound of it. I ask him why he thinks he doesn’t have one and he says he’s not sure. “I’m American, I guess. But Mom and Dad talked Irish all the time at home, and those words, you know, they stick with me. I still remember those words, the sound of them. That’s still part of me.”
Dad says, like it just hit him, that Con even spoke Irish to him on the day he died. “He asked me to light his pipe for him, he says. That was something I always did for him, something between us, you know. He was lying in that room in Galen, you know, where they’d moved him in the last days, and he was pretty far gone. Couldn’t breathe at all. Wasted away. I didn’t know it would be his last day, the last time I’d talk to him. You know, how can you know something like that? You don’t. You can’t. And so the last thing he ever asked me to do, he said to me, ‘John’—you know, he called me John there, nobody ever called me John—he said, ‘John, will you light my dudeen for me?’”
There’s a long silence on the phone. I can hear him breathing. “Did you light it, Dad?”
“No. No, I didn’t. I wonder why sometimes. But, you know, I was young then, and I was trying to do what was right, and now, sure, I look back on it, I might have done something different. But then I just said, ‘Dad, the doctors here say you can’t smoke. Say it’s bad for you.’
“You know what he said to me?” He pauses. I think I hear a sound that might be him laughing, might be him crying. “You know what he said? He said, ‘I had a cow in the old country had more sense than those doctors.’” We laugh, or make a noise that sounds like laughing. Then a silence unfolds in which I can think of no more to ask him and he of no more stories to tell, so we wrap up quickly. Goodbye, now. Tap ’er light.
As I hang up the phone I can hear the voice recorder coming back to life after a long silence in the car. Emerging from those tinny speakers is the familiar sound of an old sentimental song.
On her back there was tattoo’d a map of Ireland,
And when she took her bath on Saturday,
How I loved to watch her soap up over Claddagh
And watch the suds roll down on Galway Bay!
Skeff always did hate that schmaltz bucket.
Butte, May 2005
“Did you ever work here, Dad, in the mines?”
“No,” Skeff says. “Not me. My dad did, Con did, for most of his life, except those four years he was the county coroner. Lost his left eye down there at some point. Bit broke and a piece of steel flew off and got him in the eye. But when he got too sick, too tired, you know, to go down in the shaft anymore, they still kept him on. But I think the gaffers he knew always had a soft job for him, like some kind of watchman or something like that.”
We walk around the mine shaft, poking at things. The ground is littered with the detritus of the work: thickly rusted pieces of heavy machined steel, square-top timbers soaked in creosote and blue with age, old ore cars rusted into orange-black lace, crusted sections of small-gauge track piled waist high, steam shovels, backhoe buckets, and broken bits from the buzzies scattered about. We poke into the blacksmith shop. It’s still open and the tools are still there. The dull bits, thick with rust, are still lined up by the grinder for sharpening, as if this were only a holiday and the work might begin again in the morning, when the men return from the Mint Bar, or from the old M&M, where the doors never closed. But the M&M is closed now and for good, and the men will not return today, to the shop nor to the sill station nor to the hoist house behind the gallus frame, which still echoes with their absence, and, like the smithy, feels as though they had just left.
It’s hard to believe when you stand here that they were only men. They should have been giants, I think. This is the architecture of giants. Everything is huge and heavy. In the hoist house, 4,000 feet of cable as thick as a big man’s leg is spooled like thread on a drum reel twenty-five feet in diameter. Behind the reel is a slate board with a giant clock hand on it, pointing at the names of the stops in the shaft scrawled in chalk by the hand of some miner now long gone.
Skeff fingers a piece of metal lying on a dusty, oil-soaked workbench. He tells me two of his older brothers might have worked in the mines a few summers before the war. “My mother didn’t want us doing this kind of work. She wanted more.” He pauses. “And anyway, when I broke my hand, I was eighteen, and my hand was no good after that, for that kind of work. That was the end of that for me. The end of this. So I went to college.”
Skeff watched his father, Con, die, slow and gasping. In the same year he watched his mother, Anna, die. An eldest son expects to see his parents die. But he did not expect to watch as his little brother Joe followed Con some years later, fighting for air the same way and even in the same house, only in Joe’s case with a little oxygen bottle on wheels pathetically trailing behind him. But even with the aid of that bottle, Joe’s circle, like Con’s, narrowed first to the street, then to the yard, then to the house, then to the bed, and then nowhere.
And then Skeff had to watch again, this time in his mind’s eye and from a distance but without ever looking away, as Sister Serena, his kid sister and a nun now, stepped off a plane on her way from somewhere to somewhere else, took a cab to one of her own hospitals complaining of a pain in her back she assumed was from riding the airplane so long and so often. Within two weeks Serena, who never smoked in her life, who never strayed from the vows she took at sixteen to remain pure in body and soul, and who never left the hospital once she entered it, died alone, gasping in another iron bed, far from Butte, far from home. The doctors wondered how—in so short a time and with no apparent cause—such a woman could have formed in her lungs the grapefruit-size tumor that killed her.
Maybe Skeff wondered then what kind of poison had been passed to his family along with and within Butte’s edenic fruit. They lived twenty-six miles away and usually downwind from what for seventy years was the largest smelter in the world, which was always in operation. In the fields around the smelter’s slag heaps sheep for years had quietly died, their loss quietly recompensed by the Company and just as quietly forgotten by the Montana press the Company indirectly owned. He might have wondered what gas, which of the chemicals—radon, arsenic, mercury, copper, lead, sulfur, or something else or all of them in some combination—had trickled into his water, had rained down from his sky, had risen somehow through ore and rock and topsoil or had vented through the still-open shaft without being seen, heard, or smelled.
He might have wondered, but either his lawyer’s mind quickly figured the percentages and then saw no further purpose in wondering, or he simply accepted it all without regret. Well, this is how it will be now. Now this is the way it will be.
And he maintained that composure and maintains it still. He maintained it even on the day thirty years ago when he was arguing a case before a judge in some small town on the high line and realized, in midsentence, that he couldn’t catch his breath, just couldn’t breathe. He had to ask for a recess. And he saw in that first moment all that would follow, saw the end of his career as a litigating lawyer, the end of the profession on which he had banked his life, the end of arguing cases, the end of defending the weak against the strong, the end of a life he had come to love. And he saw the end, perhaps, of his own special dispensation, his own destiny now revealed to be the same as Con’s and Joe’s and Sister Serena’s, and life revealed to be not just something you die of but something that kills you.
Like Con, he went from doctor to doctor, but none of them could even identify the problem, much less lie about it, much less alleviate it. So within a month of that day in the courtroom it would be impossible for him to play handball anymore, within a year impossible to practice law as a litigator, and within two years impossible to walk more than a mile. He became a judge then, and a good one, but his soul still belonged to litigation, his heart to Butte and his lungs to Anaconda. His success, as his success always has, only further divided him from himself.
After that he could not even sleep at night, since every time he lay on his back his lungs would fill with fluid and he would wake up coughing, drowning. He gave up on sleeping at night and napped instead, fitfully, in a straight-backed chair, slumped over Shakespeare and the Bible. And he padded around the house in the dark, coughing and spitting up hard balls of phlegm.
Today, at ninety, although drugs have helped him some, he knows that this, this slow drowning, the withering and the incapacity and the shame and the sputum and the mucus, is indeed how it will be now, that this kind of dying, his father’s kind of dying, is the price he has been asked to pay for living long enough, for being blessed or cursed or both enough, to have witnessed and given shape to this particular series of accidents, to have watched and listened and flown in those long wheeling concentric circles with Butte at their center.
And he knows, and I know, too, that it will kill him, this thing, that Butte will kill him. It will kill him eventually, and sooner than either of us would like, since neither of us knows how to open ourselves to the other, and both of us know that when he dies so also will Con and Anna and Ireland and Butte, and this time probably for good.
Behind him Skeff will leave eleven children, among them a son who bears a name that was his own, the name by which he will be called again only on the marker of his grave.
Feature image: woodhead / flickr