At 2:13 a.m. the mill awakens me, venting gas it has stored all day for this moment. Stella’s asleep: mouth open, lost in dreams that make her whimper. I journey to the toilet. And the cold hardwood tugs at my eyelids. I leak sitting down. Scratching the stubble on my cheeks. Surveying the receding hairline in the mirror.
Maybe a sandwich will help me sleep: thick slabs of salami and mayonnaise. I build it between two slices of rye, adding pickles and black olives as an afterthought. Large bites beat back the sulphuric smell that awakened me. And a beer stokes my furnace, like the one I stoke at the plant.
I reach for a book in the living room and remember my father’s hairy knuckles. Home from the mill, waiting for supper, he’s angry and taunts me. He calls me The Little Professor. His bitterness is a whip from which I recede, from which I hide my passion for books. And when he dies, the primal duty of eldest son to his mother sucks me whole into the mill.
At twenty-one I meet Stella, someone to go out with, someone to ease a life I’ve not chosen. She’s twenty-five and likes short skirts, cocktails, and late night parties. I tell her I want to be a teacher. “You read too much,” she replies. “Too much thinking rots the brain.” There are echoes of my father in her voice. She’s a mill girl in a town where sulphur is called the smell of money. When she gets pregnant I do the right thing, thinking that marriage to this stranger will only postpone my dream.
The telephone brings me back to my sandwich. It’s my younger brother. He’s desperate: “I need you!” He says. Wiping mayo from the side of my mouth, I ask him if he’s using again. He’s alone, half-crazy with fear, returning from oblivion. And his voice recalls the the promise I made to our mother – her grey face on the white white sheets. Her last words: take care of Pauly…promise me. And then she sags, lying there like a dead little bird.
I leave the half-eaten remains uncovered on a plate in the fridge. And with the beer safely stowed in my belly I scrape the stubborn ice from the windshield. I take a short cut down Main Street, where businesses parade unpainted. Turn left at the mill and drive uneasily past the settling ponds that prepare the sludge for removal.
It takes three cigarettes to get there. But he doesn’t anwer. Inside…twilight. A desk lamp overturned on the linoleum floor displays grime, dirty clothing, and dishes colonized by cockroaches. I find him in bed, with a rig neatly tucked into his arm. And for a moment he seems like a precious butterfly on a mounting tray.
Pauly, I call to him. But he doesn’t answer. And I remember my grief-stricken mother by his side during the pneumonia. Holding his hand as she did mine when she made me promise. But he doesn’t move. And I am alarmed. And the children and wife in the portraits are alarmed. Do something, they say. Shake him! And when I do, he’s like a man with no bones.
The ambulance is a Christmas tree of lights and apprehension. When it takes him, there’s nothing I can do but watch the anxious vehicle twist down the ribbon of road he shares with the mill. I’ve been here before. And I am resigned. So I light another cigarette and drive home past the gloomy ponds.
I take the longer way this time, so I can think. I picture Pauly’s family: Gloria and the three kids: a cluster of bluebells on a green hill. They found them, seatbelts still in place, deep in sludge. I imagine the slow suck, the screaming children and Gloria’s frantic face. After seven years they still haunt me. And Pauly’s slow journey to be with them has tired me out.
It’s 5:57 a.m. Stella’s up. In her pink flannel housecoat, cooking breakfast. “Where you been Eddie,” she asks, tapping her cigarette. “Pauly,” is all I say. Her face winces to show me she understands. But she does not. The terrible beauty of Pauly’s journey is a mystery that will always elude her. Cooking, cleaning and shopping are what she understands.
I eat the strips of well-cooked bacon, two sunny eggs and buttered toast. As Stella sits across from me drinking black coffee. Blowing smoke rings in the air. I see Pauly on his wedding day: his eyes filled with Gloria, and her belly soon filled with children and laughter: a world into which our daughter could not lead us.
On my way upstairs I say I’m going to sleep. And I ask her to call me in sick. She likes our narrow bed. Cozy, she calls it. But I’m often awakened. And when she draws near I complain we need a wider bed. Alone this morning, I stretch out from horizon to horizon. I’ve not bothered to brush, and fall asleep with the taste of pig meat in my mouth.