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Authors: David Adams Richards

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BOOK: Mercy Among the Children
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When he fell to the ground his carnation came off. He went to pick it up, and the third man stepped on it as the other two kicked him. I hated them, and I ran through snow swirling in the black wind to try and help, but my father held me back. In doing so he could not protect himself from being pummelled and cutting his hands on the ice.

I’m sure my father knew who they were, but he didn’t want me to know — for knowledge leads to sin. Even if they did not have their faces hidden, the road was pitch dark — not a light shone.

“I told you I’d get you back,” one of them kept saying. I can hear him today, a raspy singsong voice. “And now I’m getting you back.”

“Take the children home, Elly,” my father said, the damned barley toys he had bought for us, for an after-mass treat, falling from his pockets.

Autumn was hysterical and kept clutching my arm, and I was scared, especially when I looked at Autumn’s face.

Finally car lights turned onto the frozen lane, and the men were gone in a second. Jay Beard had come back to get his guitar, which he had forgotten after singing at the church. He helped my father to his feet. Then he took time to drive us home.

“I forgot my carnation,” Dad said. “It fell on the road.”

“I’ll go get it,” Jay said. “If you go they might be back —them being roaring Christmas drunk is all — they won’t bother you again tonight if you stay here with Elly. It’s just drunkenness making them shine.”

It was the first time I became aware of our true isolation. That my mother could be discussed like she had been. I wanted my father to say, “I will go with you and get them,” but he only nodded. For the first time, more even than the work with the Christmas boxes, I realized there was a poverty in us that had nothing to do with dirt.

As I became older I would know any child of poverty, a smell like dark storm and milk. I would smell it in cities not only here but in Europe, and I would realize that all of them in a sense were a part of my blood.

Now it lingered beyond us in the sweet frozen darkness of the poor. There was in this poverty a scent of holy water my mother used to sprinkle on Autumn’s dresses, for she cherished this little albino girl.

When Mother got out of the car she thanked Jay and modestly smoothed her dress over her exposed legs. I was suddenly informed of myself as a child of privation and disgrace. Just like the Voteurs. Cheryl Voteur and not Penny Porier was
my
kind. I had only thought I was different from her blunt knowing little face.

My father took off his shirt and sat at the kitchen table near the Christmas tree we had decorated with such passion. For the next few days he couldn’t bring himself to read.

It’s hard to think of that little house then. We did not have much. We had a radio, where Autumn and I would listen to a station in Boston — disco music was big. We watched television. Autumn read voraciously and would entertain us with her one-woman plays, and Mom made taffy. But my father was known as the Henderson boy who had helped cause the fire at McVicer’s Works and so was out of work. He refused welfare.

I wanted to telephone the police. My father thought about it and said, “Let it go — for now.” I was furious with him the next day because he hadn’t fought. Every time he looked at me I put my head down. After a while I forgot about it. But one day, perhaps because of shame, or maybe just because I had grown, I met Dad walking across Highway 11 as he went home from an afternoon job helping shovel snow from the doors of a pig farm. He stopped and waited, smiling at me. I pretended
I didn’t see him. For the first time I did not run to catch up, and for the first time I never took his offered hand.

EIGHT

Leo McVicer. The very name personified Chatham. His very suit pants personified struggle up the ladder, from pauper to prince. The great dark high-ceiling buildings of orphanages and tenements, the cement steps covered with wet snow. His childhood of pain and loneliness had made him idiosyncratic.

He was a Catholic Chathamer from the hill, a scrappy red-haired youngster with a fierce face and darting blue eyes who would chase the rich children (those who were Protestant) into Queen Square and beat them for the fun of it. He was a bully and a torment and a sneak and a ruffian and a son of a bitch. He had liked that.

When he was nineteen, just before he went overseas, he boxed as a featherweight, calling himself the Chatham Flash. There was a picture of him in a black T-shirt and trunks, with small six-ounce black gloves, on the upstairs wall in his house. His white, short, and uniform arms belied his powerful punch. It would be little problem for him to knock out a man twice his size. He knew this. Of course he had changed and grown out of it. He had gone to war, and he was in Company B of the North Shore Regiment, and he had faced fire and he had faced death and he had faced isolation and danger.

After the war he saw opportunity in owning the land. He bought it all out from under Roy Henderson, who ended up
working for him. Leo knew work and he knew men who worked, he knew horses and tractors and how to take advantage of men to keep them honest and get the best from them.

My grandfather lived on a piece of land given to him by Leo. And that small bit of land was ours.

When I was twelve, in 1982, Mr. McVicer called Mathew Pit and Father to the office in his house, made them shake hands, and hired Mathew and Dad to clean his old sawmill, to shovel the grounds, to dump bulldog lime in the tailings pond and anywhere around the perimeter, and to haul the barrels of herbicide to an incinerator in Edmundston. He helped them start a well-digging business.

People said that this was because of Autumn, because of the snip of hair Mr. Gerald Dove had taken years before.

Sometime in 1977, Gerald Dove, a young man with receding red hair and a moustache, had come to visit, asking Sydney about the fire my grandfather started. He sat across the table from us, his eyes glowing brighter the moment he unsnapped his leather briefcase with his thin white fingers. We all watched him breathlessly as he produced a tape recorder and a questionnaire.

Dove asked if we had any trouble with our water, or was there any sickness in our family. He spoke to my father about other places — problems in Wyoming and Michigan that were very similar. He told Father that McVicer wanted him to discover the extent of the problem for possible restitution. My father said nothing to this at all.

Dove spoke about the circumference of the burn and the late rebirth of the hardwood ridge along the Point Road, which showed a certain dwarfism due to toxic properties, not all, he said, coming from McVicer’s Works. But there was a
prevalence of toxicity in certain molecular structures dumped throughout the sixties from the mill into the tailings pond that ran directly into Arron Brook and into the ground-water thirty families relied upon. He said that McVicer would soon take action because of his findings. He spoke of the nitrogen oxide core samples he had taken on wetlands above our own house the winter before and how they tested a certain amount of carcinogen.

“Tell me,” Dove asked, “are there any incidents of diarrhea or stomach sickness?” Mother said she felt well, generally, and the water was okay.

After the interview Dove and my father went out to the mill ground for two hours, and as Father walked about the ground, Gerald Dove took notes, measured off certain things with giant steps, and scooped up samples of dirt.

When he came back to our house, he collected a sample of water. Then he snipped a bit of Autumn’s stark white hair and put it in his pocket, but he didn’t smile or say thank you. Then he shook my father’s hand as an afterthought and walked away. I stared at the place where Autumn’s hair had been snipped until I could no longer tell where the snip was.

Now, because of the snip of Autumn’s hair, Gerald Dove had done five years of tests. Although these tests were inconclusive, people were saying McVicer owed us money.

Dad told me that Dove was McVicer’s nephew (not really a nephew — he was a protégé who was called that) and originally wanted to defend McVicer’s environmental legacy because Leo had taken care of him as a boy. Dove had worked at the mill in the summers and after winning a Rhodes scholarship, got his doctorate in what was called environmental biology.

Dove and Leo’s daughter, Gladys, had fallen in love as teenagers. Leo was given to acting rashly to protect her, and so disallowed them to see each other. This was the reason
Gladys, who was a year or so older than Mom, had married Rudy Bellanger.

Still, Leo had brought Dove back to help him out of a controversy with the environmental agency. And after all, Dove owed him. And like everything in Leo McVicer’s life there was a moment when he would collect what he was owed.

Now, after five years of exhausting tests, Dove had changed his mind. He wanted Leo to pay all the families fifty thousand dollars apiece. I asked my father one night, after we had come home from fishing and were sitting out back, if he had heard of this. I was very excited about it, and supposed he would be as well.

“Oh yes, I have heard of it.”

“Well — do you want to get money? It might be a lot of money.”

“No,” Father said, looking at me and spitting on a whetstone to sharpen his axe. I stared at the side of his head in astonishment. It was a cool night in June and damp could be felt in the trees and grasses. I could not believe Dad would not want money.

“No matter how much?” I asked. I could smell my father’s dark skin and woollen sweater covered with spruce, saw his tanned leathery skin, his huge hands, and trembled in anguish.

“No matter,” Father said. “It was not McVicer’s fault — he had no more knowledge of it than anyone else. We all used that herbicide — not only McVicer. My father had his own barrels to use on our lane, so who’s to say it is McVicer’s fault? The world has gone on — that’s all that can be said.”

So instead of suing McVicer he and Mathew Pit went to see him the next afternoon. McVicer helped my father and Mathew start a well-digging business. Initially this business was profitable. Yet came a certain problem with the drill bits, and after a while the company went bankrupt McVicer took it over, dug two more
community wells, and sold it. But I know McVicer had done what he had set out to do. He had brought father and Pit temporarily to his side, and prevented, he hoped, litigation.

The pouring of bulldog lime as a purifying agent about the mill ground and hill beyond went on into July of that year. My mother helped Dad with this, and came home with burns as large as dollar pieces on her skin from wheelbarrowing the lime, which got between her toes and fingers. There are no burns worse, I can tell you.

It was shortly after that Leo McVicer himself came to the house to visit, bringing us a large assortment of cookies and teas from his store. My mom had just had another miscarriage; her third or fourth.

Leo asked Mother how she was. He was dressed in a three-piece suit, with a golden watch chain hooked to the inside pocket of his vest. He looked at the thin walls of our house, and was concerned about the centre pole in our main room. He knocked on it and pushed it as he looked at me, as if I had anything to do with it. He picked up Autumn and smiled at her. He felt her shoulder bones and her feet. He shook his head. We all looked at him in astonishment, as the little Voteur girls had looked at me from the window.

He was by far the richest, most important, most charismatic man to have ever entered our house, and here he was, pouring my mother tea, handing cookies to Autumn and me off one of Mom’s plates, talking about people we all knew, as if we were all
friends.

He went and sat beside Elly and took her hand.

“I will start building a bridge sometime soon,” he said, “and put a highway through. It will swing north — where the mill once was — all of that will be road — highway. It will put a stop to this nonsense about the bad molecules in the soil. I will hire Sydney. Elly, you are a friend of Diedre and have done no harm
to me. So Sydney will have a job if he wants. It will mean you can leave this old shack — and find another one bigger and better.”

With this he bit a cookie carefully, and listened to the great wind from the bay tossing against the branches of the trees. Both Autumn and I watched him chew the cookie, I suppose trying to determine if he, a millionaire, ate like other people. He then asked me had I ever boxed.

“No,” I replied.

“Would you like to?”

“No,” I replied.

“You are a strong youngster — nothing wrong with your bones, is there?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

He never took his glinting blue eyes off me, and I became more uncomfortable the more he spoke. It didn’t matter his size, or what people had called him. Inside he was a conqueror.

Then he asked Mother, in a long roundabout way, to work as a domestic in his house. The work would be steady and not hard. She would be paid well. She would not be bothered with cold or wind, or bulldog lime. When he said this he picked up her left foot and looked at it. Then he told her he had a salve he would bring to help heal her burns, bums that had turned her foot both red and black. Father, who bathed it for her at night, called it the Stendhal foot.

“I love the name Autumn,” McVicer declared. “What are you going to be when you grow up?”

“I am going to be a writer,” Autumn said, still hiding behind her mom.

“A writer,” he said.

My mother, thinking this answer presumptuous, smiled awkwardly.

“Like Zane Grey? Well, as long as you don’t write about me,” Leo said, chuckling.

I stared at his large brown hands, his white starched shirt cuffs pulled down over his wrists. I looked at his silver cufflinks. There was a rumour this man had killed an opponent in the ring when he was nineteen. I knew he could easily have done it.

Leo then looked at me, as if he realized what I was thinking. He put a hand-rolled cigarette in his mouth and nodded. He told me that he had followed the lightweight Roberto Duran for many years. Now, after the “no mas” fight against Sugar Ray Leonard, he was saddened. He smiled, alone in his thoughts.

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