Elsewhere by Richard Russo


  This story will win a lot of bad-job contests unless your competitor has worked in the beam house of a skin mill doing the wettest, foulest, lowest-paid, and most dangerous work in the whole tannery. Greg had worked in one for a couple months one summer, and his younger brother, Jim, for much longer. The first and probably nastiest job in the beaming operation was unloading the skins, which arrived at the loading dock on railroad cars, still reeking of the slaughterhouse. The word skin probably gives the wrong impression. Most people have never seen a hide—sheep, pig, calf, cow—unattached from its living owner. Stretched out flat it’s big and, especially with cows, surprisingly heavy. (Our grandfather gave himself a hernia tugging hides from one position to another over his cutting table.) When the skin arrived in the beam house, the top side was still covered with coarse hair, the underside with patches of maggot-infested flesh and gristle. The stench? You don’t want to know, but imagine—if you can—what it must be like to spend an eight-hour shift unloading a railcar full of them in extreme temperatures.

  Later, inside the beam house, Greg assured us, things got even worse. Here the skins were submerged in huge vats and soaked for days in a chemical bath that stripped off most of the hair and the last of the clinging flesh. Naturally, these chemicals could easily do the same to hair on the hands and forearms of men who hoisted the soaked skins out of the vats, so long rubber gloves were issued. You’d think the skins would be lighter minus the hair and flesh, but you’d be wrong, because untanned skins reabsorb the moisture lost during transport and this cleansing. The soaking also turns the heavy skins slippery. The rubber gloves make the slick skins harder to grab hold of, as does the fact that you’re bent over the vat and standing on a wet concrete floor.

  At some point, like the men farther down the line who prod the tanned skins into staking machines and roller presses, you’ll do what you know you shouldn’t: you will take off the rubber gloves, because that immediately makes the job easier. At the end of your shift you’ll wash your hands and arms vigorously with the coarsest soap you can find, and when you get home you’ll do it again. You’ll gradually lose the hair on your hands and forearms, but otherwise, for a while, everything seems fine. Okay, sometimes your fingers itch. A little at first, then a lot. Your skin begins to feel odd, almost loose, as if moisture has somehow gotten beneath it and what you’re trying to scratch isn’t on the surface. Finally it itches so bad you can’t stand it anymore, and you grab your thumb or forefinger and give the skin a twist, then a pull. The skin, several layers of it, comes away in one piece, like the finger of a latex glove. (On the other side of the Atlantic, at the Royal Society for the Arts, my cousin demonstrated with his thumb, everybody wincing as he pulled off the imaginary prophylactic of skin.) Instantly, the itching becomes stinging pain as the air impinges on your raw flesh. Later, someone comes around with a jar of black goop and you plunge your raw thumb into it, the coolness offering at least some relief, and for a while you go back to wearing the rubber gloves.

  This is only the beginning, though, just the beam house’s way of saying hello when all you want to say is good-bye—to the skins, the foul chemical air, even your coworkers, because let’s face it, the ones who’ve been at it for a while, many of them with fifth-grade educations, aren’t quite right. You all make the same shitty pay, but at the end of the summer you get to go back to college, and for that the others hate you. Meanwhile, you can’t imagine getting used to work like this, or that the day will ever come when the lunch whistle sounds and instead of going outside into the fresh air you’ll decide it’s easier to just stay where you are, take a seat on a pallet of decomposing hides, wipe your hands on your pants, and eat your sandwich right there—because what the hell, it’s been forever since you could really smell or taste anything anyway. Plus, in the beam house there’s entertainment. You can watch the rats chase the terrified cats that have been introduced to hunt them.

  As my cousin related this story, which I was hearing for the first time, I became conscious of being in two places at once. I had one dry, wing-tipped foot in the candlelit world of a fancy arts society in London in 2007; the other work-booted foot was sloshing through the wet, slippery beam-house floor in Gloversville, New York, circa 1970. That younger me wasn’t a novelist, or even a husband or a father. He was just a twenty-year-old whose future could be stolen from him, who might indeed be complicit in the theft, because I remembered vividly how sometimes, late in August, working road construction with my father, my body lean and hard from the summer’s labor, I’d think about not going back to school. I could live with my grandparents on Helwig Street and do that hard, honest work my father and his friends did all year-round. The wing-tipped me, now holding an empty champagne flute, felt a sudden crushing guilt, as if to be where I was I must’ve cheated destiny or, worse, swapped destinies with some other poor sod. I felt my throat constrict dangerously, though I couldn’t tell if that was due to my cousin’s story or because the wedding party—with Kate absolutely radiant in the first hour of her marriage, and Emily laughing her throaty laugh and looping her arm through her fiancé’s—had at this moment returned. Two smart, confident, beautiful young women, their feet planted squarely in the candlelit world before them, on this day—for them, at least—the only one that existed. The time might come when they, too, would feel haunted, guilty about what they’d been spared in life, keenly aware of how things, but for the grace of God, might have gone otherwise. But that day seemed a long way off.

  “More Prosecco?” one of the waiters inquired.

  “Yes, please,” I told her, holding out my glass. Gloversville, I reminded myself, was on the other side of the world. “Absolutely. Lay it on me. Right to the brim.”

  UNTIL WE BEGAN PLANNING Emily’s wedding we didn’t fully comprehend how easily we’d gotten off with Kate’s. We’d feared a London wedding would be a logistical nightmare, but being on the other side of the Atlantic had the unintended consequence of lowering everyone’s expectations, at least of us. Nobody assumed we would deal with day-to-day details and crises. Tom’s parents stepped up. Decisions got made without us. We showed up. We wrote the check.

  By contrast, Emily’s wedding was larger and would take place in Camden, where a matrimonial clusterfuck like the one I was gleefully imagining in my new novel would long be remembered. With no ocean to protect us, our very different families showed up en masse. Barbara’s Arizona contingent, none of them seasoned travelers, needed assistance at every juncture. My own Gloversville squad wasn’t much better, but at least they’d be arriving by car. And of course there was our future son-in-law’s family and friends to consider. Add to all this the normal wedding anxieties about who, for personal reasons, should be kept well clear of whom, and what would happen if the Red Staters were allowed too close proximity to the Blue. When the whole thing threatened to overwhelm us, we reminded ourselves that our tribulations would have been multiplied exponentially if my mother had been alive.

  Truth be told, Barbara and Emily handled most of the wedding arrangements while I forged ahead with the book I hoped would pay for them. About this time I had a few odd dreams about my mother in which she telephoned from Europe, wanting to know why I’d abandoned her there and when I was coming to get her. These made me wary, but they were too comic—Europe? my dead mother was calling from Europe?—to be truly unsettling. Otherwise, I thought I was doing pretty well, certainly better than my novel’s protagonist, Jack Griffin. At the book’s outset he’d been heading to the first wedding on Cape Cod with an urn containing his father’s ashes in the right wheel well of his trunk; now, driving to the second wedding, this one in Maine, he’d added his mother’s urn to the left. Poor Jack, I thought. Scattering my own mother’s ashes hadn’t been easy, but my character seemed utterly unequal to this fairly straightforward task. Death had made his mother even more loquacious than she’d been in life, even more determined to insinuate herself into his life and marriage, both of which were coming apart. A terrible snob of
an English professor, she was (to me, if not to him) wonderfully entertaining, in part because she was about as different as anyone could be from my own mother. Nor was Jack, despite superficial similarities of age and profession, all that temperamentally similar to me. And so far as I knew, my own marriage wasn’t failing. All of which allowed me to believe, as a writer must, that I was writing fiction, not thinly veiled autobiography.

  IT WAS AROUND this time that a large padded envelope arrived in my mailbox bearing a Gloversville postmark, never a welcome sign. Inside were two books, the first a copy of my novel Bridge of Sighs. The man who sent it in hopes of an autograph was a judge named Vincent DeSantis, who, except for college and law school, had spent his life in Gloversville, and who, as he explained in the accompanying letter, had strongly identified with Lucy Lynch, the book’s protagonist, who’d done the same thing. Clearly he thought he was writing to Lucy’s friend Robert Noonan, an artist who in the novel flees their boyhood town, never to return. I couldn’t really blame him, given how infrequently I go back to Gloversville.

  The other book in the padded envelope was Toward Civic Integrity: Re-establishing the Micropolis, written by, well, Vincent DeSantis, and seeing this my heart sank, as it always does when I’m sent books I haven’t asked for with a view toward my endorsement. But Mr. DeSantis wasn’t looking for a blurb, and his book, despite its rather scholarly title, wasn’t an esoteric work of nonfiction. It was about Gloversville, and the question he posed was whether it and similar communities had a future in the global twenty-first century or were in inevitable and irreversible decline. “All is not lost in your hometown,” the author assured me. “A network of dedicated and talented individuals has lately been working to reassemble the pieces of this fractured micropolis.” My knee-jerk reaction to this Humpty Dumpty sentiment was Yeah, right. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men … I tossed the book on a tall stack of volumes whose common denominator was that I was unlikely to read them in this or any other lifetime. Not interested.

  Yet that wasn’t quite true. Since Kate’s wedding my cousin’s beam-house stories had been in my thoughts. I was also worried about Greg himself. A few years earlier he’d had open-heart surgery to replace a malfunctioning valve, but he still couldn’t sleep very well lying down and was getting by on a couple hours a night. Though I’d tried to keep in touch, when I inquired about his health he always put me off with his standard line, “Nah, I’m doing great for an old guy.” Then we’d talk about what our kids were up to and what movies we’d seen and whether I was working on something new. And eventually the talk would turn to Gloversville: who’d been jailed or diagnosed, who’d gone into a nursing home or died. When I mentioned I couldn’t get his beam-house experiences out of my head, he launched into a litany of Gloversville woe with which I was all too familiar: men mangled by machines or slowly poisoned or killed in accidents. The three guys who worked the spray line in one mill all dying of the same exotic testicular cancer, a case so outrageous it made the New York Times. Then there was the retarded boy hired to clean out the blues room, so named because the chrome used to tan the skins turned them blue. The world of leather is full of scraps—strips of worthless skin and hoof and tail—and every now and then these have to be disposed of and the whole lethal place, including its giant vats, swamped out. One evening, when this kid didn’t come home, his mother called the shop to see if he was still around. No, she was told, everybody from the day shift had left. The following morning her son was found lying on the blues room’s floor, asphyxiated by fumes. Another man, nearing retirement age, was working a press when his partner inadvertently stepped on the pedal that starts the rollers, catching the man’s hand—more like a fin, now—in the mechanism. Yet another day, when it was unseasonably cold on the floor, the foreman sent a man to fire up a boiler that hadn’t been inspected in twenty years, and it promptly blew up, killing him. Stories upon stories, each reminding my cousin of other men who died, their families uncompensated. Some dated back to my grandfather’s days, ones I’d heard so many times I knew them as well as Greg did, but I understood why he needed to repeat them. The guys who lived this life in this world are, like World War II veterans, mostly gone. Somebody should give a shit.

  But why me? Hanging up after such conversations with my cousin, I’d find I was roiling with rage I wasn’t at all sure I was entitled to. Obviously, I’d never spent a minute in the beam house. Unlike my cousin Jim, on hot summer days I don’t have to lance with a needle the hard pustules that still form on my hands, thirty years after the fact. What right does one who’d fled at the earliest opportunity have to speak for those who remained behind? If Vincent DeSantis isn’t pissed, why should I be?

  NOT LONG AFTER Emily was married, I finished my wedding novel, at the last minute pulling poor Jack Griffin back from the drain he’d been circling. His parents’ ashes finally scattered, he was able to make a grudging peace with his past and live again in the present. The book came out and sold well enough for Barbara and me to consider getting that apartment in Boston, so when my book tour concluded we started scouting neighborhoods—the North End, which we both loved though it seemed not to offer what we were looking for; the South End, which was wonderful but not well served by the T; the Back Bay, which had little, at least in our view, to recommend it; and a small rectangle of blocks near South Station called the Leather District, which was convenient to both the train station and the Silver Line T that provided a straight shot out to Logan Airport. Emily and Steve were living in Amherst, Kate and Tom in London, and a place in Boston would make visiting both couples easier. Because, alas, we were entering a new world, one where we had to share our newly married daughters. Holidays would now have to be rotated—Christmas at one set of in-laws, Thanksgiving at the other.

  That first year Christmas was ours, and we celebrated in Camden. Ten glorious days’ worth of long dinners fueled by red wine, followed by card and board games that lasted into the wee hours and made zombies of us the following morning. Such festivities would have been impossible if my mother had been alive, which made for an odd mix of emotions, guilt chief among them. There were times when, to me, at least, she felt oddly present. Why, she seemed to be asking, had we never had such good times when I was alive to enjoy them? Had she ever had any idea that she was the one who’d been putting a damper on things? I doubted it. As a young woman she’d always been the life of the party, and she continued to think of herself in that role, even forty years after she could no longer play it. “Remember what fun we used to have at Christmas back on Helwig Street?” she liked to ask, genuinely bewildered that fun should elude us so completely now.

  At the end of the holidays, though, came a surprise. Just before she and Tom were to return to England, Kate, partly at his insistence, confessed that she hadn’t been doing so well in London. When she began to explain what was troubling her, the symptoms she needed to confront, some things came into focus. At times during their visit she’d seemed strangely on edge, borderline manic. We’d noticed that when anyone used the small, communal laptop computer we kept in the kitchen, she’d leave the room and return only when it was unoccupied. Over the last nine months, she told us now, certain sounds—the clacking of a keyboard, for instance—had begun to inspire in her not just annoyance but also genuine terror. Boarding the Tube or a London bus, she had to scan the compartment for laptop users and stay as far away from them as possible. If somebody pulled out a computer after she was settled, she had to move. She’d hoped that being home, away from the cacophony of urban sounds that were driving her nuts, would help, but in Camden the problem actually seemed exacerbated. Having done some online research, she thought she’d identified the problem, and she meant to see somebody as soon as she returned to London. For Barbara and me that wasn’t soon enough, so with her permission we arranged for Kate to see a well-regarded anxiety specialist in Portland, and it took him about twenty minutes to confirm her self-diagnosis. She suffered from obsessive-compulsive diso
rder. With appropriate treatment, she would be fine. Without it, he warned, it would eat her alive.

  The next day she and Tom left for London with the names of several good therapists there, and we returned to Camden with a newly purchased book on the subject, which I began to read with foreboding that quickly escalated into full-blown horror and roiling nausea. Because right there in the introduction was the long parade of bizarre behaviors I’d been witnessing in my mother since I was a boy: how she always had to keep her possessions arranged “just so,” her love of arbitrary rules for their own sake, her need to “even things up” (the same number of folds to the right and left of the middle on her curtain rods), her constant checking on things she’d already checked in order to “be sure,” but then continuing to worry anyway. Worse, all this was here defined as mental illness. That, of course, had been my father’s amateur diagnosis: “You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”

  But surely his observation wasn’t intended to be clinical. He’d only meant that for the sake of my own sanity I’d do well to accept that my mother was “batty,” half a bubble off of plumb, one card shy of a deck, a few rungs short of a ladder. Supply your own comic metaphor. But the language of this book was neither comic nor euphemistic. Here my mother’s “nerves” were anxieties and panic attacks. Nor were such distinctions merely semantic. Crippling anxieties and incapacitating panics (unlike nerves) were serious conditions that demanded treatment. Mental illness, like physical illness, first required diagnosis, then appropriate therapy. Kate had already gotten the first and was embarking on the second. My mother had received neither, and the result had been precisely what the Portland anxiety specialist predicted. She’d gradually been eaten alive.

 
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