Authors: Robert Ward
Tags: #FICTION / Urban Life, #FICTION / Crime
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
This book is dedicated to
Celeste Wesson and Shannon and Kevin,
with all my love.
Special thanks to friends and family who hung in with me down the line. In Baltimore, my deepest gratitude to William Kelch, who drove me around to union halls, unemployment lines, bars, and other hangouts and who was the finest guide and friend a writer could have; to Vic Covey and his wife Ginny, who taught me about the steel industry and answered endless questions; and to Dr. Ted Trimble, who got me started and gave me support all the way through. And to Ned Myers, friend and brother.
In New York, special thanks to my editor Joyce Johnson for her courage and brilliant editing; to my agent and friend Jay Acton, who believes in my talent and kept coming up with money-making projects for me so I could finish the book; to my friends Morgan Entriken, Bob Asahina, Paul Bresnick, and Gary Fisketjon, who all read early drafts of the book and made valuable suggestions; and to David Black, who is always there at 2
And very special thanks to Larry Sullivan, for his warmth, wit, and brains.
by Daniel Woodrell
Who do I hit? Who do I hit?
That’s the reflexive, unavoidable and eternal question of the frightened, the disenfranchised and bewildered. All a bereft and humiliated man has left is the capacity for violence (that’s why violence is so abhorred and heavily punished — if social inequities came to be adjusted through violence, the lower classes might somehow win a few rounds, and no elite class or people rig the rules of society to encourage the defeat of themselves) but what keeps resorting to violence pointless and wrong is the pitiful truth held inside the question, Who do I hit?
You don’t know.
You almost never know, not for sure, and if ever you do find out, it’s not a who that deserves a beat-down but a what, the what being an idea of some sort, a simple word or theory stated in the abstract distance that has somehow found it’s way to your house and reached inside to strangle you at the kitchen table: Downsizing. Union-busting. Retooling the heavy machinery. NAFTA. Inflation some years, deflation others. Automation. Corporate restructuring. Outsourcing.
The steelworker of the title in Robert Ward’s superb 1985 novel
, puts it this way: “I felt a fear overtake me … A fear which pissed me off, made me want to smash something down, break it… But what? Who?”
The Nips, someone says, as the men slowly come to realize the plant’s not going to reopen and work will no longer be performed at Larnel Steel in Baltimore. One day Red and his fellows were highly skilled workers responsible for fairly dangerous jobs involving molten steel; the next he learns he is a worker without transferable skills and thus labeled unskilled, good for pushing a broom or painting fences. Red is alarmed to the core and aware that wages might be the least of what is lost when a man feels cast aside by forces he doesn’t comprehend, and is not even replaced on the line, merely made antique and completely unnecessary. The only way of life he knew and understood has shifted from beneath his feet, and he is in free fall a long time before he realizes that the ground he has counted on forever is gone, gone.
Of course the abrupt loss of a working-class career isn’t Red Baker’s only problem; it’s merely one of his problems, that’s what makes this such an excellent and complex novel. He retains the old neighborhood trait of extreme loyalty to childhood friends, even those who always lead you down bad paths. Though he wouldn’t consider betraying his friend Dog , he is not at all trustworthy to his intimates and betrays his wife four or five days a week. He’s not all good or bad, he’s average; an every man, who maybe drinks too much and has more personal charm than almost all his fellows. Feeling frustrated and impotent, Red tries desperate acts and discovers who he truly is, and, more importantly, who he needs to become.
Robert Ward said it well and truthfully 25 years ago — it’s only become more true — and
could not be reissued at a better time for Americans reeling from the most recent economic tsunami. This is an entrancing novel, convincing, heart-breaking, sentimental and tough — a classic of its kind.
he story I am about to tell you is how I, Red Baker, lost my job, my pride, my family and came damned close to losing my home and life, but through an act of ingenuity got them all (for the time being) back again.
There never was a story with a happy ending in Baltimore, but this comes as close to cutting it as any I have heard.
What happened was this:
In the winter of ‘83, the year the President and his band of television writers were telling us how the economy was on the big climb, 60 percent of the work force at Larmel Steel were told they could grab their lunch boxes, clean out their lockers, and make tracks for home. We weren’t supposed to be bitter because we had a whole week’s notice.
Not that it was any huge surprise. They don’t ship steel because they got a soft spot for erecting buildings, and the truth is we weren’t exactly creating a whirlpool of business. But it came as one hell of a blow anyway.
I remember the way the mill looked that last night. Like one of those ghost towns you see in John Wayne movies. I walked past the slag heap, gone cold now that the furnaces were shut down. All the machinery sitting there with the fine steel dust settling over it, the guys walking around slowly in the unnatural quiet, staring at one another blank-faced and blinking in the lead-dull light. I waited there for my friend Dog Donahue to get his jacket and stared at the tilting tables on the blooming mill, where I had spent the last twelve years of my life turning the huge bars of steel over with my tongs. So many days dreaming of getting the hell out of here. But now that they were shutting the place down—rumor had it that it might be for good—I would have given about anything to climb back up there, put on protective goggles, and get back to work. Already I missed the clack of the tongs as Dog and I guided the molten steel through the pass to shape it down. I could see old Billy Bramdowski working up in the pulpit, waving down to us, smiling and yelling encouragement. It was like something was cut out of me, which came as a shock because I never figured to miss all that smoke and belching noise.
All over the place—in the rod mill, in the chem plant, out in the yard—it was dead and dark, and I felt a fear overtake me, sending electric sparks through my chest and arms. A fear which pissed me off, made me want to smash something down, break it off. But what? Who?
Before the silence got too much, I walked outside to the parking lot, pulled the collar up on my parka, and looked up at the black sky and the white snow flakes, which drifted down through the high-tension wires. The moon was white, perfectly round, and all around me guys walked slowly to their cars and trucks, some of them with their heads down, others huddled together for a last few words before they made it home. I didn’t have to join them to know what they were talking about. There was only one thing on anybody’s mind. Was this the last time we all walked out of Larmel? And if so, what the hell was going to happen to us?
Finally Dog came out, carrying his lunch pail and wearing the red-and-white-checked hunting jacket me and Wanda gave him last Christmas. He looked at me, smiled with his big-gapped teeth, and punched me in the arm with his huge fist.
“Let’s get outta here, Red,” he said.
“You said it, Doggie.”
He turned around and looked at the silent, dark machinery and then turned back to me.
“You know what it is?” he asked.
“No, what’s that?”
“It’s the fucking Nips. Fucking Nips sending that steel over here, kicking our ass. You know why? They got fucking slave labor over there. Between the Nips and the government we got a snowball’s chance in hell. They stop those imports, we’re back in business. But there’s no way they’re gonna do that. Big shots in Washington could care less, you know that.”
“Come on, Dog,” I said. “Let’s get on down to the Paradise, get us a couple of drinks. It’s cold as hell out here.”
He nodded his big head, and we walked across the lot, our boots making crunching noises on the tar.
“Nips’ll be running this country soon. You hear what they did to Blackwell’s?”
“No. Why don’t you tell me, Doggie?”
He looked at me and gave a little half smile.
“Wise ass,” he said. “You know all right. They bought the whole fucking place and turned it into a warehouse. Think the city gives a shit? No way, jack.”
I nodded but didn’t say anything. Dog was on a roll, letting it all out.
If the Nips had to take the heat for it, that’s the way it fell for now.
We climbed into his pickup, and the seats were frozen, the plastic smooth as glass. I reached into the glove compartment, pulled out a pint of Wild Turkey, took a long belt, and handed it to Dog, who chugged about half the bottle.
“Hey, gimme a break,” I said.
“Shit,” he said, handing it back to me, “what the hell we gonna do now?”
“How about starting the truck?”
He looked at me with his big head tilted sideways and that strange glint in his eye as though suddenly he didn’t know me at all.
Then he laughed and took the bottle back.
“I don’t need this, Red … I mean it.”
“Yeah, yeah, now how about starting the engine?”
He turned the key and mashed his foot on the accelerator, and the old Ford sputtered and died out.
“Don’t flood the son of a bitch, Dog!”
“Hey what’s this, driving school?”
I said nothing more but took another hit of the Wild Turkey and stared out at the snow, which fell gently on the window.
He hit the gas again, and this time it turned over and we started out of the lot. I tried not to think what I was going to tell Wanda and Ace, tried keeping my mind on the Paradise and Crystal, and then I shut my eyes a second, and the whiskey flooded my mind with pictures of me and Crystal on the highway down in Florida, weeping willows hanging over the car and orange juice stands everywhere you looked, and then a long white beach, the sun burning down on us, the brightest, whitest sunlight you ever saw, and she and I standing at the ocean’s edge.
For about thirty seconds I was right there, with my pants legs rolled up and Crystal in her new bikini showing off that fine, tight little ass of hers, and then Dog’s gruff, low voice wiped the whole thing out and we were out on the North Point Boulevard, passing Bud’s Bait and Tackle Shop and Mickey’s Package Goods with his pink blinking neon sign.
“Hey, Red, what was that thing that guy wrote inna paper?”
“What thing was that?”
“You know. The one that guy wrote the other day.”
“About the Colts?” I said. There never was a time so bleak I didn’t enjoy putting on the Dog.
“No,” he said. “For Chrissakes, I’m not talking about the fucking Colts, the thing that guy wrote who interviewed us downa plant?”
“Hey, who gives a shit? Let’s get that heater going. I’m freezing my balls off.”
Dog took a long, furious breath and stared at me.
He had his teeth clenched together, and his eyes knitted up so he looked like he had one long brow.
“You look real good when you get pissed like that, Dog. Kind of like one of them Neanderthal men.”
“Hey, I’m going to start acting like one if you don’t tell me what that guy wrote, Red.”
“Which guy was that?” I said, barely able to keep from smiling.
But I guess I pushed it too far. Because Dog jerked the steering wheel to the right and slammed down hard on the brakes. My shoulder bounced off the door, and my head snapped forward, bashing into the windshield. He reached his huge hand over and grabbed my jacket collar.
“Goddamn it, Red. Don’t treat me like no dumbass. You know what that guy wrote. Now tell me …”
Sweat beads broke out on his forehead, and he had that big-eyed look which I’d seen all too many times over the years. I can handle myself okay, but nobody wants to mess with the Dog.
“I’m starting to remember a little,” I said. “The asshole wrote that what we had were ‘nontransferrable skills.’”
As soon as I said it, Dog began to nod. He took his hands away from my throat and slumped back in his seat.
“Nontransferrable skills. It was right there, but I couldn’t remember it. Stayed up all night trying to get it.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Old songs get me that way sometimes.”
“This ain’t no song, Red. He’s telling us we’re through.”
“Hey, fuck him and the horse he rode in on. We’ll be back in there in two weeks. Meanwhile, we’ll get a line on some new jobs. Collect a little of the old unemployment. Lay back some. I been working too damned hard anyway.”
The Dog wiped his head and bit his lower lip.
“Nontransferrable skills,” he mumbled under his breath. “What’s he think we are, just a bunch of assholes? You hear what they’re saying, Red? That the mill ain’t ever gonna open again. Between the Nips and Walsh Brothers up in York, Pennsylvania, we can’t compete. Those guys got automation.”
“Hey, don’t worry so much, Doggie. Come on, let’s get down to the bar. We can’t settle this all tonight. Take it one day at a time, partner.”
I reached over and gave him a pat on the back of his neck and felt the muscles all bunched up tight. I didn’t blame him, really, and there was nothing more I could say because the truth was that Walsh Steel could go from ingot to bloom to billet to a roll of wire in about half the time we could. If you were building a shopping mall, you sure as hell wouldn’t come to us.
But I told myself not to dwell on it. Something would turn up; it always had before. Red Baker’s Philosophy: You’re usually up to your head in mud, but as long as you can keep breathing you’re ahead of the game.
Dog started the truck up, and as we rode through the blowing white snowflakes I felt the whiskey cutting through me. For a while there, as we passed Gino’s and Graybar Electronics and Luby Chevrolet with its new
PAC MAN LOVES LUBY
sign, I felt all warmed up and loosey goosey, and I was almost able to pretend it was just a regular night, stopping in for a few whiskeys at the Paradise, trading lies and bullshit with the boys, and flirting with Crystal before I headed on home to my wife and kid.
• • •
When I entered that dark gin mill, the first thing I heard was Mick Jagger singing “Satisfaction.” Up on the red velvet platform in the middle of the bar Crystal danced in her white spangled body stocking. She was bumping and grinding her sweet tight ass, and she gave me a little wave and a big smile. There were quite a few of the boys in there—but they weren’t yelling encouragement like they usually do or bringing out the dollar bills so she’d drop one of her straps and show them her perfect pink nipples. Instead this was a bar of hard-hatted, grim drinkers, staring down into their whiskey glasses and talking low to one another like there had been a death in the neighborhood.
The one thing Dog and I did not need was grim, so I waved back to her and did a little dance shuffle with my feet, like I was getting ready to raise some serious hell. Crystal laughed at me, and just seeing her smile sent a shot of adrenaline through me.
Dog and I sat down at the horseshoe bar and ordered our Wild Turkey from bleary, blond, hound-faced Deena.
“Fucking morgue in here,” Dog said, gulping his whiskey and beer and ordering another before I could even get started on my first.
“Need some fun!” he shouted, banging the bar with his glass.
“Go baby!” I called up to Crystal, and she tried her damndest, shaking and shimmying as the old, scratched Rolling Stones record burned into my ears.
Already I could feel a dull ache slipping away from me.
“God, she is one fine-looking woman,” I said to Dog, who was smiling at her himself now. Crystal has that magic you can’t explain. Just seeing her with her short haircut and this little-kid enthusiasm makes a man feel close to joy.
“I thought she was going to be singing down at the Starlight Lounge,” Dog said, drinking another Wild Turkey.
“Yeah, but they say they’re broke. Laid her off. Just when she was getting good playing the piano too. She did a rendition of ‘Misty’ a couple weeks ago near broke my heart.”
“Shit,” Dog said. “There’s only one thing she gonna break for you, and that’s your head when Wanda finds out.”
“Hey,” I said. “You’re moving into a sensitive area, son. I’m half in love with that woman.”
“In love with her tight little bod,” Dog said. “You got to admit she’s got a better ass than she does a voice.”
This actually offended me, so I attempted to burn Dog with my cigarette, our old high school trick. He jumped back and laughed.
“Fucking broke Romeo,” he said. “Shit.”
He pounded me on the back while I sulked some. I don’t know why it is, but friends do love to see one another suffer.
Crystal kept right on prancing about, shimmying and shaking and then coming real close to me and reaching down and kissing me on the forehead while whispering, “Hey, Red Baker,” and I reached up for her, but she stepped back and danced down the other end of the bar, trying to cheer up the grim guys down there. Looking at her I thought of those USO girls. It occurred to me that she was kind of a welfare worker of the body, using her natural delights to keep the whole, burned-down, wasted town afloat.
And thinking that made me love her all the more.
“Buy you a drink, Red?”
I turned and saw Billy Bramdowski, who worked up above me in his glassed-in pulpit. It was up to Billy to move the big tables I worked on from side to side, guiding the molten steel into the right pass while I turned it with my tongs. Just like Dog, he was part of our team, and I trusted him completely. He was a real pro up there, something like an artist the gentle way he moved all that red-hot steel, and he better be too, because if he jerks the table too hard I got a hot bar of steel flying off the table onto my legs. Just last year Tom Chenowith lost his right leg when one of the other pulpit operators showed up with the shakes from too much booze. But Dog and me didn’t have to worry about that with Bill, because usually he was a sober, mild-mannered guy. Only tonight he looked about as down as the rest of us, his face red from drinking and his blond hair matted to his head.