Hoping for .500
Clocking out, I noticed another box of cupcakes in the break room. The rumors started. Again. Everybody knew but nobody talked about it. People mentioned things, then avoided them. It was just easier to get on with the day and leave at five.
It was a blinding, gray afternoon. My car was at the far end of the parking lot; as I went towards it I watched the first dustings of snow swirl across the ground, a faint little whoosh as it circled through. I got in the car, glad it was the weekend.
Halfway through the valley, past West Homestead and heading toward Munhall, I stopped at the Great Duke for a drink. People from the plant went there. I parked behind, got out, and walked around to the front door.
I saw the usual folks. Dale was tending the bar and his daughter-in-law's son, Garrett, was cooking. A couple was eating fish sandwiches at a booth. Everyone else was at the bar, mostly from work. I sat next to Joe.
“Hey, Ellen, whaddaya know?”
“Hi, Joe. Free from Whimco till Monday!”
“Yup. How's your boy?”
“Oh, you know.”
Dale came up and asked what I was having. IC Light. He got it, laid a napkin on the bar, and handed me the glass.
“How're yinz in accounting?” Joe asked.
“No idea!” I snorted. “They sit me in front of that computer, I don't know what's happening! I just put numbers in the columns.”
“In the black though?”
“If we were in the red, I wouldn't be around to tell you.”
I sipped my beer. Joe ordered another. He got it and drank half straight off, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
“So,” I said, “how are you?”
“Well, basically okay. Workin' overtime. Stuff for Erie, then machine parts for the frackers. Some castings for a Canadian mill. So busy I ain't had time to look at this cough, but I made an appointment for Tuesday.”
“I try to take care of myself. Sometimes I think about quitting, but I got no cushion. Little J, he's almost ready for college. I just want him to have some choices, y’know?”
I said, “I had to take Amaro to the dentist last month. Impacted wisdom teeth. He was funny after he woke up.”
“Yes, just impacted teeth.”
“And everything else?”
“That was hard for us," I paused. I had known way before Amaro did. Frank and I decided not to break it to him until we absolutely had to, and we still had hope. Frank was tough; he really didn’t look bad until the last couple of months and, by that time, when we did finally tell Amaro, he already knew something was very wrong. “Yeah, that was hard,” I cleared my throat. “It’s fine, though.”
Joe said, “I 'spose you heard about George Towey.”
“I saw everything in the break room.”
“He has relations to my sister's family. I never spoke to him much outside of work. We talked about the Pirates at the snack machine last Thursday.”
“We made the wild card game, huh?”
“Yeah, but we lost it.”
Dale took Joe's glass and topped it off. “The fact yinz are even talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates in October,” he laughed. “Season started so bad that I was just hoping we’d make .500, keep it from being a losing season.”
I was having a hard time keeping up with the baseball talk, but I knew bits and pieces. “We did better a couple years ago. It's like we’re moving backwards.”
“Hard to really shake a bad streak like ours,” Dale said.
“Didn’t George and Michelle go to Florida in the spring for the Pirates?” I thought out loud. “Some reason, I can’t remember.”
“Yeah,” Joe said, “the Bucs practice down there; maybe Towey figured he’d better go, I guess maybe...” He said no more. Dale and I tried to keep talking for a few moments as he stared down at the company logo on his Carhartt jacket. His lip trembled. Eventually nobody spoke. The jukebox was broken and had been a long time. The couple with the sandwiches left. Nobody was around—and who was, wasn’t really.
Nancy, sitting three stools down, shot up and rushed into the Lady's like she'd had one of Garrett's Flaming-O Burgers. We grew up together. Us and our husbands worked at the old mill—Nancy and me in accounting, Frank and her husband, Bill, down on the floor—till ‘86, getting bounced around since ‘82. After it finally closed I went to Whimco, but Nancy didn’t. I got up and followed. She was at the mirror, fixing her face.
“Heyy, how you been?”
“Don't be such a fucking neb, Mamma!” Nancy laughed, dabbing her eyes.
Growing up, Nancy used to call me ‘Mama’ and I called her ‘Eunice.’ We watched that show all through high school, but anymore, I couldn’t remember why we called each other those names. It was still funny, though. Something about the things we did growing up always was; those things held up over the years.
“I just wanted to check if you were all right.”
“I heard you talking about Towey, made me think of Bill.”
“Good, really. Yeah.”
“How's long's it been?”
“Boy.” Nancy looked up. “A year since February.”
“They give him pension?”
“Sure as hell tried not to,” Nancy sighed. “We had a hard time with insurance and even the union, proving how he got sick. How and when. But they gave him benefits n'at after we hired a lawyer off the TV.”
“Snyder?” I laughed.
“Yep! ‘He got money for us!’” Nancy joked, pointing at me like the lawyer did on his ads.
“Is he, well, talking yet?"
“Little things now and then, not full sentences or anything.”
“I'm glad. Frank… He never recovered like that after all the operations we tried, so that's great for Bill.”
“You know,” Nancy said, “he's here. That's why I come in here. I can't get upset in front of him. He doesn't like that. You should say hi.”
“I didn't even notice him!” I lied.
“I thought you noticed everything, Mama.”
Leaving the restroom, Nancy took me over to Bill. I couldn't recognize him. He was wearing a thick turtleneck to hide the operation. What was left of his jaw looked like soggy paper. Nancy said, “You two haven't seen each other in forever!”
Bill nodded his crooked head.
“I knooww,” I said to her, trying not to look at Bill. “Way too long.”
Nancy laughed and slapped my back. I started a hacking fit then; I'd been all right all day, but there it was again.
“Well.” I tried to smile after regaining myself. “I have to run. Amaro's probably worried. I'm gonna call him and see if he wants KFC tonight. So nice to see yinz!”
Before leaving the bar, I went to the pay-phone, dropped two quarters in, and tried thinking of the number for my family doctor. For some reason I couldn’t remember it, like I’d blocked it out of my head. I hung up and left without getting my change back.
Eric Boyd is working on his debut story collection, "Brownfields." A recipient of the PEN Prison Writing Award, Slice Magazine’s Bridging the Gap Award, and a semi-finalist for the H.E. Francis Award, his stories have appeared in Joyland, Guernica, The Offing, Bridge Eight, The Masters Review, Burrow Press Review, and Fourth River, as well as the anthologies Prison Noir (Akashic Books) and Words Without Walls (Trinity University Press). Living in Pittsburgh, Boyd holds an MFA from the Writer’s Foundry in Brooklyn. He is the editor of The Pittsburgh Anthology (Belt Publishing).