The Wheels of the World
The old man, when he started to go, took a lot with him. Part of the world that had seemed eternal slipped away with his mind. The house on Marginal Street, where I'd lived with my parents, John and Norma, had always been a safe, dry island, high above the flood. My draft notice in the Spring of 1968 was the first wave that shook the foundation of our peace, and shocked us with the cold spray of an indifferent gathering sea. Later, when I'd gone, the small warnings of my father's loosening grasp on things were the successive rollers that tumbled across its grey breast, and crashed on that shore, confessed to me in letters I read in the trackless elephant grass of South Viet Nam. My mother wrote of her foreboding in cryptic Irish phrases such as "I'm afraid it will get worse before it gets better." She anguished over conflicting interpretations of the ambiguous words of doctors. And as the months passed, she watched the swollen sea roll along the paved ways; I imagined her standing in swirling water up to her knees, wringing her toil worn hands, knowing she could never turn it back or keep up with its steady progress, but near September of that year it seemed to have leveled off, and she grew accustomed to wading among the flotsam of his incoherencies, uplifted by his moments of lucidity. The sadness never receded, though, for Norma. It was always there, a pall on the bright, chilly days of October in New England, the leaves dying around her in a demise unmatched anywhere in its glory.
But let me begin before all that. When my father, John Laffin, was a full man in body and soul and mind, he had an aura of confidence and know how and hard sense. He understood things: operations, finances, mechanics and even people. He seemed able to penetrate any problem, to hold it up to the light between his thumb and fingers, the way he would hold up a piece of machinery and turn it to find a crack, a blown gasket, an unlubricated gear. He looked into things and nothing baffled him; he could read schematics and blueprints and see the order they represented finished and functioning in his mind. He played the piano too, and if the war hadn't come, he might have got a scholarship for it. On the upright Baldwin, there was a photo of him as a young man in a blazer accepting a prize in a music competition in Boston.
He'd always helped to support his family working part time through school in the mills, and when he returned from the Second World War, he got a job as a loom fixer and general mechanic at Fulton Fabrics, a squat red brick mill hunched at the edge of the Merrimack River. He met my mother at The Commodore Ballroom soon after, and they danced there for three or four weekends in a row to Eddie O'Connor's Orchestra, and then they married and bought the small house in The Acre next to the railroad tracks. A couple of years later I was born, and slept in the back room amid the rumble of the passing trains. My mother was a seamstress, and her clients came to the house to be measured and fitted, or to bring her patterns that they wished her to follow, or an old coat they wanted reproduced.
We stayed in that house, because even though we could have afforded to move, the old man always said "It's better to live below your means than beyond your means," and every month he bought stock in the gas company. My days passed in games of wiffle ball on the cobbled street, tossing the football in the long paved driveway between our house and the Poriers, playing Army with plastic guns or sticks with Micky McAndrews and Petey McNamara, sitting in the branches of the crooked apple tree, waving at the man in the caboose as the train passed, until my father would arise when the four thirty whistle sounded, and come out to throw a baseball with me, or lift the hood of the Pontiac and show me how to check the oil, and feel for wear on the belts, and I was proud because Micky and Petey and Lila could see that he knew everything.
I went to Saint Patrick's, and then to Keith Academy, but got drafted after one year at Merrimack College, because we were trying to keep the Communists from taking over South Viet Nam and everyone knows that story. Anyway, I had to wait around for a few months until it was time to report to the induction center. In the meantime Timmy Fitzgerald gave me a job doing roofing with him and another guy they called Tuffy, but his real name was Billy. He had a home made tattoo on his arm that said BILY. He misspelled his own name on his tattoo.
They worked hard, but they used to like to have a few beers every day after work, and I got into that habit, too, because the truth is I was pretty nervous about the war, and I hated myself for being so scared, and I kind of liked the person I was better after I'd had a few beers because then I'd just say, "Yeah, I'm goin'and what the hell can I do?" and it didn't seem to matter. But I'd wake up during the night thinking about it, trying to work out the odds somehow while the summer night hung with all its silent mystery over the house and sometimes I heard the rain pattering in the leaves and a thunder that broke the dark dome of heaven and I knew my mother would be awake saying her rosary. There were other sounds-those cats that sound like babies crying when they mate, a siren passing quickly on Broadway, headed to some Fletcher Street bar. I heard them all while I lay awake, sweating and wishing for my tour to come and to get there and do whatever they told me to do and try to get home alive and live to be just another guy with a good wife and war stories he never told his kids, like the old man. I didn't want him to know I was scared because I'd found a box in the attic with two purple hearts and a bronze star and a lot of other medals and stuff from the 88th battalion. And because he just didn't seem like the kind of guy who was ever scared.
One day I came home from work, and my father was out on the back porch. He should have been asleep because he was working the graveyard shift, and he didn't go in until we were going to bed, but he was out on the porch having a cup of coffee, and I was feeling pretty relaxed after a hard day's work and three or four beers, so I sat down with him there on the flowered glider on the porch. I untied my work boots and kicked them off.
"Ah Christ, Dennis, I wish I could go for you to this damned war," he said. "I wish I could take your place."
"Shit, I wish you could too, Dad," I said, trying to joke about it and let him think I was taking it easy.
The old man tried to smile, but his heart wasn't in it. He sipped his coffee, and pressed his lips together and took a deep breath, one of those breaths a guy takes when something is really weighing on him. "You know, when you have a child, whether it's a boy or a girl, what you want to do, I suppose it's nature, what you want to do is protect that child. I love my country, but it's a very hard thing to accept that they have to send my son into a dangerous place." He was looking the other way, and I could see that my induction was tearing him up as much as it was me, and I felt sure that while I'd been lying awake all night, he'd been lying awake in the day.
The old man never talked to me about these kinds of things; he was a Mick of the old school. My mother told me on more than one occasion, "Your father loves you very much; he just doesn't know how to express it." I never doubted his love. He didn't need to tell me "I love you, Dennis." The way he lived, going off to work every day, never complaining-handing the paycheck to my mother, driving us to the beach or down to the ice cream stand; my mother and I were the center of his life - the reason he lived, and even as a kid I could see that. I never wondered if he loved me, no matter what he couldn't find the words to say. "I'll get a lot of good training, dad," I said. I felt bad that he was worrying about me, but he knew war and I didn't, so what could I say that would make him feel any better?
"I wish I could have kept you away from war, son, but I want you to know your mother and I will be praying for you every day." He was speaking quietly, which was odd too, because he'd gone a little deaf from the racket of those machines, and he usually spoke too loudly, and you had to speak loudly to him, too.
"Were you nervous dad, when you went in?"
"I don't even remember some of those battles, I was so scared, but I made it back, and I think you will, too." He held his hand before him as if he would close his fingers around something that floated there, but his fist closed suddenly and fell in his lap. "Son, I wish I could give you some great advice, but all I can tell you is be careful, put your faith in God, and for Christ's sake don't volunteer for anything."
"Sure, dad, I'll remember that."
"You may have to sort of harden your heart. Don't think about things too much. Because in war, nothing makes sense at the time. Later on, when please God you get back, you can sort it out, but you can't sort it out when you're in it. You just stay strong and hope for the best and remember the enemy wants you dead and you damned well better kill him first because…ah Christ,…" I could see that it was getting tough for him to continue, because he stopped and swallowed hard, and he said "we want you back here." He got up and went into the house, and I sat there for a long time, looking across the little driveway between our house and the Poirier's house that only a few years before had been all my world, and a familiar clattering rumble gathered in the distance and soon the great train roared along, unstoppable, behind the picket fence in the back yard.
Before that rumbling faded it began to mingle with another sound, which became louder as the train passed along into the east. It was my father pounding out Under the Double Eagle on the upright piano, the stirring march I always asked him to play.
A few weeks later, with my duffle bag over my shoulder, I headed for the front door, taking a last look up the stairs toward my room, and at the piano against the wall with its picture of my father accepting the prize, and my parents smiling at Hampton Beach, and me with my high school diploma in hand. Nip O'Hearn was waiting for me. I told them I was sleeping over Nip's house, and in the morning we'd take the bus together. I hugged my mother hard, and she said "God protect you," and ran into the kitchen with her handkerchief at her mouth. I shook hands with the old man, and he walked me out to the car, and after I threw the duffle bag in the back seat, he said, "I thought of something else I want to tell you, Dennis. If some day, you're out in the field, in the war zone, and the guys break for chow, and there's a big group of the guys sitting together. Don't sit with them. Sit off on your own, or with one other guy, away from them."
I didn't get it. "What do you mean dad? Why?"
"If the enemy has you in his sights, he'll fire into the group. He'll ignore the guys off on their own. Just something…just something I thought of."
"I'll remember it, dad. Thanks."
"So long, son."
"So long, dad." We shook hands and he gripped my shoulder. I wanted to tell him "I'll be back," but I thought that might be bad luck. When we turned onto Wilder Street I looked back and saw him still standing looking after Nip's car, and my heart was wrenched in me.
There were a bunch of us from Lowell who had to get a bus to North Station on Saturday morning, and from there hop a subway to The Boston Army Base on the piers of East Boston, where we'd be inducted. There was Kevin Taff and Joe Sheehan and Nip O'Hearn and Pugsy McGuin. We all went out to the Celtic Club because as Arlo Guthrie said, we wanted to get good and drunk the night before so we'd look and feel our best. It was a bad night. We were all feeling depressed, but we got drunk, and at about 2:00 in the morning, as the place was closing up, Pugsy went out the back door, and jumped from the third floor fire escape into the dark canal below.
He said he wasn't coming out because he'd rather drown than go to Viet Nam, but we finally pulled him soaking out of the canal, grabbed the duffle bags we'd stashed in the corner of the club, and stumbled off to the station as the hour approached for us to render up ourselves. At the station, we smoked cigarettes, and tried to sleep on the wooden benches. Sam Pollard, the mayor, showed up early, with a roll of dimes. He gave us each one as we got on the bus so we could take the subway out to the army base. He shook our hands, and wished us luck, and I could see by his eyes that he meant it. We were quiet as the bus pulled out of Lowell, taking a last look at our home rolling by, church steeples and red brick mills and deserted bars. Pugsy rode damp and shivering and miserable, and Nip said, "Serve you right you crazy bastard."
"You shoulda let me fuckin' drown," Pugsy said, "I'd rather die in Lowell."
Some crew cut loud mouth D.I. bastard came up to me while I was waiting in a line that didn't move in the army base, and tried to hand me a putty knife and told me to start scraping the gum and crap off the floor. I said, "With all due respect sir, I'm not even in the army yet. I don't think I have to follow your orders until I'm inducted."
Of course he got in my face and started yelling how he would make it his mission to look me up after I was inducted and make my life a living hell. So I put out my hand and took the putty knife he slapped into my palm and got down on my knees in my boxer shorts and started scraping the gum, hung over and half ready to puke, and I knew that the old man had been right. Don't try to make sense of anything, just get tough and do what you have to do and try to get home.
The other Lowell guys and I were together for Boot Camp in Fort Jackson in South Carolina. We went into Columbia one night and got so drunk the bus driver called the M.P.'s on the way back to the base. When they came, the driver pointed out Pugsy as the biggest trouble maker. They went to arrest him, but I stood up and yelled, "If he goes, we all go!" And all the Lowell guys let out a drunken cheer. The M.P.s said fine, and we all spent a night in the hoosgow, and I was the hero of that first unlikely engagement.
I remember the plane ride to Nam. The Lowell gang was all split up, and I was on my own. Funny thing, when we took off from Seattle, everyone was joking and yelling and playing cards, and the closer the plane got to Nam, the quieter it got, until when we were ready to land it was quieter than a wake, except for one thing. There was a guy named Letendre, who had a higher rating, and I heard guys pressing him, "Tell your commanding officer that I'm very good at electronics," or "I can fix a damned jeep." Everyone was desperate to find some dodge to get out of going into the field. The funny thing was, I found out later that Letendre had put Eng. for his major in college; he had studied English, but they thought he'd studied Engineering, so he got a higher rating and ended up analyzing aerial photos. That was the only sound-guys begging Letendre, the phony engineer, to put in a good word for them. The plane landed in Cameron Bay, and before I went down the ramp, I leaned over and kissed the stewardess on the cheek. I suppose I shouldn't have, but I was afraid I would never kiss another American woman. Thankfully, she smiled and said, "Good luck." As we walked across the tarmac, in our fresh green uniforms, we saw other guys in faded, worn out green who were leaving, and they looked at us with tired eyes full of some kind of pity or commiseration.
I did my tour, and like the old man, I really don't want to talk about it too much either, except to say that during that time I got letters from my mother suggesting that something wasn't right with my father, that he was taking medication, and that he wasn't working, and that he asked for me a lot, but that he also asked for his brother Peter, who was dead. She said he was confused. Confused was a word I never associated with him.
I did my time and I stayed alive. Then one week came and I was in country on a Monday, and then back at my parents' house on a Wednesday. My mother came running outside when my cab pulled up on Marginal Street, and the Poiriers came out too, Jeannie and Ray, and everyone was hugging me and kissing me, and my mother said to prepare myself because it might be a shock to see dad. He had lost weight, and there was something in his eyes, a vacancy I'd never seen before, but he knew me, and I was glad about that, and I heard him whisper, "The war is over." And tears welled from his troubled eyes. I put my arm around him and told him I was home now for good.
My mother said, very loud, "Everything is going to be fine now. Dennis is back. It'll be like old times, John."
The truth is nothing was ever like it was. That night, my mother made a big meal with all my favorite food, baked chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, and a Boston Cream Pie for dessert. I couldn't eat any of it. I said, "I'm sorry, ma." Just because they put you on the big silver plane and carry you out of the war, it doesn't mean you've left it behind. You can't leave it that fast, and I couldn't eat because I was thinking about the guys who never again would get a home cooked meal. I was thinking about Reggie D'Amato from New Jersey. It was during the Siege of Hue, and we were humping along a trail toward some village west of Da Nang. There was a sign on a tree that said, "American go home you die."
"What is this shit?" Reggie said, and he reached for it to tear it down, and I told him, "Leave it alone, Reggie!" He had already slung his rifle behind him, and as he ripped the sign it blew his arms off, and peppered his face with small holes. A chopper med-evaced him out, and I never even found out what became of him; I never wanted to, but I can see his shocked face and his trembling body and the shattered bones protruding from his khakis. When these images came to me, I would sink inside myself, like a soldier into a foxhole, behind a fortified wall deep in my heart, grim and untouchable. Don't try to make sense of it.
Pugsy never made it home. The premonitions that had driven him off the third floor fire escape proved accurate, and they renamed the park near his house McGuin Park. There's a little stone inside a square black fence in the corner of the park with his name on it, David P. McGuin. I don't think Pugsy would have cared for it at all. There was another guy I had become friendly with at Fort Jackson, a skinny kid from Tewksbury he gave me a small New Testament back in basic - I heard he didn't make it back, but I never looked into it because I didn't want to know.
I went out a few nights with the boys down to Fury's to drink and play pool, but I saw that what we were doing mainly was getting drunk and just pissing and moaning and hating the world and I knew it was no good. I didn't blame them, but I didn't want to do that, and I drifted away from them.
I took a job back with Timmy Fitz and Billy, or Bily, trying to save some money to go back to school in January. I liked being up on those roofs in the cool September sun, high above it all in the quiet breeze, ripping a cracked slate, and sliding a new one into the empty slot, bending a copper bib to push up over the nail hole in the key. After a while, you could look out over the finished job, and see rows and rows of fine strong slate, and never know where the cracked ones had been, and the water would roll down between the keys and never find a way to seep into the roof boards underneath.
One day I was climbing the ladder, and as I went by a window, I saw a woman with a towel on, brushing her hair in the mirror. I didn't want to scare her, so I only looked for a second, but my shadow fell over her, and she turned and saw me. I felt awfully foolish, but at the same time I was overcome by the beauty of the sight, her standing there with the brush in her hand and her long brown hair over her shoulders, and the other hand holding the towel. I said, "I'm sorry!" loudly and kept climbing. Strange how the wheels of the world turn, and none of us can see where their crazy windings lead. I married that woman four years later, Dolores Quinn.
The old man had moments of clarity, and you could forget he was sick, and then at other times, well, you couldn't pretend. One night he appeared agitated, and I saw him lift the hinged piano seat to rifle among the sheet music stored there. "What are you looking for, Dad?"
"I can't find my sheet music for Couperin. Les Bagatelles."
His frenzied search continued for a moment, and then he closed the seat, and slumped down onto it. "I can't play tonight. I'm not ready."
He thought he had some kind of recital, a crowd somewhere was waiting to hear him. I told him he didn't have to go anywhere, and I brought him into the TV room and we watched a little bit of a ball game together, and he seemed to follow the game alright, and forgot all about the piano.
One night soon after that I was reading that battered New Testament the skinny kid from Tewksbury had given me. It had become a habit to read a little bit of it every night. There was a lot there that I had never learned in twelve years of Catholic school. "Among human beings, who knows what pertains to a person except the spirit of the person that is within?" In Nam, all those deep sentences had given me things to think about, and they kept my mind off other things. My thoughts were interrupted when I heard my parents' voices, and then a knock on my door.
"Dennis, I don't know what to do with your father. He says he's going to work. He's insisting."
I went in and tried to talk with him. I told him he didn't work at Fulton anymore, but he said that was a lot of hogwash. I told him he was sick, but he said he felt better, and it was time to go back to work. My mother was in tears, and it took a long time to convince him, until he got tired, I guess, and I got him back to bed. The next night, at the same time, around 10:30, we reenacted the scene, and soon it became a nightly ritual. He wanted in on the third shift. He was ready to get back to work, and I got tired of trying to convince him, and seeing my mother so upset.
After a week of this, I went down to Fulton Fabrics. A young secretary at a desk directed me toward personnel. A middle aged guy in a bow tie got up from his desk as I opened the glass door and came over to me, while at other desks, women typed or crouched looking through file drawers. There were framed photos of the mill around, and advertisements for Fulton Fabrics. "Fulton Fulfills the World's Fabric Needs," read one such poster, with Chinese, African, and Greek looking women all standing behind an American housewife holding what looked like a long curtain.
"Can I see the director?" I asked the bow tied man as he approached.
"Would you like to fill out an application for employment?"
"No, thank you. I'd just like to talk to the director, if you don't mind."
"Well, he's in a meeting. Is there anything I can help you with?"
"I'll just wait. Do you think the meeting will take long?"
The guy looked annoyed, but he forced a smile and said, "I really don't know, sir, but why don't you have a seat in the lobby. Can I tell him what this concerns?"
"Well, it concerns a former employee of yours. I'll explain it to him. It won't take long, really." He nodded, and walked off, and I went out to the lobby, where I sat under a big painting of Mr. Fulton, senior, and picked up a Time Magazine with a long article on the war. There was a picture taken out of the open door of a Huey in flight; the camera looked down the barrel of an M60 door gun onto some rice paddies fringed with jungle. I could hear the whirling blades in my mind, and feel the swinging arc of the chopper as it veered up and away from the peasants in their conical straw hats and the thin stalks of rice, so fragile, rising from the muddy water. I held my breath as I sat there, remembering the crackle of small arms fire, and the hiss of the bullet that flew into the chopper one day and ricocheted around inside, grazing the pilot's chin, leaving him bleeding but laughing like a madman with relief as we roared diving over a blurring canopy of green. At the time I felt a wild exhilaration, but sitting there looking back on it, I felt sick.
I threw the magazine on the table and pulled my small New Testament out of my jacket pocket, but instead of making me feel better, it made me feel worse, because I opened to Thessalonians, Chapter Five: When people are saying 'Peace and Security' then sudden disaster comes upon them, like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. Not the kind of stuff a guy needs to cheer him up. After about forty five minutes, I caught the bow tied guy peeking out at me, and I began to suspect he was playing games, so I went back in to the office.
"Is the meeting over, sir?"
The Irish temper was rising up from my chest, and the words on my tongue were hot and biting, but I forced the anger back like a wild animal into its cage. "I asked if the meeting was over, because what I have to say will only take a minute. It's a small matter."
"I think Mr. Walker is on the phone right now."
"You think? Could you check?"
"If you'll have a seat in the lobby, sir, as I said…"
"Why don't I wait here while you check whether Mr. Walker is on the phone."
A door opened and a middle aged man in a pin striped suit stepped out, threw a folder on a secretary's desk, giving her a few curt instructions. "Mr. Walker!" I said loudly.
"I told him you were busy right now, but he…"
"I am rather busy this morning. Mr. Welcome is right."
"Welcome? His name is Welcome? That's a good one." I couldn't help laughing, and one of the secretaries smiled covertly, but the two men looked serious. "I'm sorry. Could I have two minutes of your time, Mr. Walker. I'm Dennis Laffin. It concerns my father, John Laffin. He worked here for many years."
"Joan over there can help you with the retirement paperwork, injury claims,…"
"No, I don't need anything like that."
Mr. Welcome rolled his eyes, and started to say something, but I addressed myself again to Walker. "Just a minute of your time, sir."
His shoulders slumped and he exhaled as if I were a real pain in the ass, but he gestured with an extended arm for me to step into his office. "Now what can I do for you?" he asked.
"Well," I said as I sat down, "my father John Laffin worked here from 1945 until about a year ago as a loom fixer and machine mechanic. Do you know him?"
"I know the name, yes. I don't get out on the machine floor too much. I'm on the business end."
"Right, well, he worked the graveyard shift anyway. He has a mental problem. He's mixed up, which is why he can't work anymore. But lately he keeps getting up and wants to come into work for his shift, and I tell him he doesn't work here anymore, but he thinks I'm lying. He was such a faithful employee, Mr. Walker, that he wants to come in and work."
"I'm sorry to hear that, Mr. Laffin. What can I do about it?"
"This is the thing. I'd like to have a letter to show him. When he says he has to get in here, and he doesn't believe me, if I had a letter from the company saying thank you very much for your years of invaluable service, but the company is moving to Mississippi, you know, something like that, and if it were on company stationery, because he's not in his right mind, but I know him, and I think the letter would help."
Walker cleared his throat, and leaned back in his chair. "I don't think that a letter like that would do much good in the mental state that he's in, Mr. Laffin."
The animal charged at the cage door. "And what are you, a fucking doctor?"
We glared at each other for a moment, and it was in my heart to reach over the desk and grab him by the tie and throttle him. I was thinking of my father giving all his loyalty to this company, and of my Aunt Edna, who worked her whole life at Educator Biscuit, and on her last day the owner couldn't even come down out of his office to thank her.
"I understand you're under a lot of strain, Mr. Laffin. Which is why I haven't called security. The communications I put on company stationery are official, and so I can't make up things about the company and put them on company stationery, can I?"
"Look, I'm sorry. I don't care how you phrase it. I'm not used to having conversations like this, because over there your friends are your friends and you can count on them, and your enemies are your enemies, and you don't talk to them at all, or you kill them."
Walker sat up in his seat and I knew what was coming, "Are you threatening me, Mr. Laffin," he'd say. "I'll have the police here in two minutes." But instead, he asked, "Over where?"
"In Viet Nam, Mr. Walker. You can read all about it in the Time Magazine in the lobby. There's only love and hate there, no disguises, and you forget how to smile and be nice to some bastard in a suit who can't do a favor for a guy who gave almost twenty five years of his life to keep him in that suit. Someone who took bullets in his body for a country that doesn't remember. Someone who never did anything but work and take care of his family and sacrifice and help his neighbors, a musician who lost half his hearing amid those damned banging machines, and who still wants to come here to keep them running because he thinks it's his duty. He thinks it's his duty. We all did our duty, and what did we get for it?"
My father had told me not to think about the war while I was in it, and I hadn't. I never did try to make sense of it. I never wanted to know who had come back and who hadn't. I had turned it off, hunkered in the fox hole, armed against memory, and told myself I would deal with it later. And God knows why it all hit me right there in Walker's office, the father I'd left behind strong and healthy and sorrowful, watching me drive away with Nip O'Hearn to the war, Pugsy, who wanted to die in Lowell, but couldn't, and Reggie D'Amato with his bare shattered bones and blood flecked face, and the kid from Tewksbury whose name I couldn't or didn't want to remember handing me the New Testament, and the men eating a hot meal a chopper carried out to us in the field, and me apart as my father had told me when they fell in a sudden burst of fire, and the villagers running, kids crying, and the Vietnamese translators screaming at the prisoners. Who knew who was guilty and who was innocent? Who cared?
It all fell on me like a hundred pound hammer, and I who'd been ready to jump over the desk, the tough guy, to throw this bloodless bureaucrat against his office wall, and demand the small thing I wanted, now slumped in a chair in his office shaking and sobbing into my hands, ashamed of the weakness that only earned men scorn.
When Walker picked up the phone, a few seconds later, I expected him to tell security to come and drag the sniveling bum out of his office. Instead, I heard him say, in a voice strangely low and subdued, "Joan, take this down, and type it out on company stationery. Dear Mister John Laffin, The Fulton Fabric Company wishes to thank you for -look up his years of service Joanie, I want it to be right, however many years of dedicated service in the position of Loom Fixer. We owe our success as a company to the dedication and hard work of employees like you. Your company record is one that you should be very proud of. It is with great regret that I must inform you that due to circumstances beyond our control, Fulton Fabrics will be moving its operations to Mississippi. All floor shifts have ceased, and you need report to work no longer. Enclosed please find a two hundred dollar bonus as a small token of our appreciation for your years of service. Yours Faithfully, type it up and bring it in here for me to sign, and tell Dalton to write out a company check for two hundred."
He let me sit there in his office for a while until I had pulled myself together a bit, while he made a call to some freight company. When he hung up, we talked a little bit. I told him that I didn't come for any money, but he flat out insisted I take it. Something I'd said had hit home. The guy had a heart after all. The secretary came in with the letter, and a check. He signed them both, and put them into an envelope, which he handed to me.
"I'm sorry for your trouble, Mr. Laffin. I meant what I wrote in that letter." He rose and stretched a hand across the desk. "We do forget, Mr. Laffin. We do forget. I'm sorry."
That night like clockwork, the old man started fidgeting and getting out of bed saying he'd be late, and he had to get to work. I was waiting with the letter and said, "Dad, didn't you see what came in the mail today? Look, it's from Fulton Fabrics."
He took the letter and sat down on the edge of the bed. Tears filled his eyes as he read, and looking over his shoulder, Norma said, "They think very highly of you, John."
"Yes," he said. "Look, they gave me two hundred dollars. They're moving." His brow furrowed, and he said, "I can't go to Mississippi."
"No, of course not. You'll have to retire now."
"Yes, I'll have to retire." His eyes seemed to hold their old light, and pointing at the signature, he asked "Did you see who signed it? Ernest Walker. He's a big shot down there. His older brother Robert went to school with us. He was killed in The Battle of the Bulge, on Christmas Eve. Poor Robert Walker."
"Well, we're all home, and we're safe, John. It's time to put the past behind us."
I went to bed, and heard them talking quietly for a while, and somewhere across the city Dolores Quinn lay in the room I had seen for a few fleeting seconds, neither of us suspecting that our lives would intersect again soon, at the window of Prince's Bookstore on Merrimack Street, and before I turned the light off I opened the New Testament and read, The stone that was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone. I lay awake for a while, pondering those words, thinking of the cracked slates I'd spotted even from the ground in the roof of St. Patrick's Church, wondering why the builders had at first rejected the great cornerstone. And I fell asleep, dreaming of men laboring to build something wonderful to rise up out of the sea of confusion, like that wondrous cathedral in France that rears out of the crashing Atlantic, men with all their imperfections, limping, wounded, and hard drinking Billy with his name misspelled on his arm, all the men full of pain and loss, and fear and regret, ascending a scaffold along the stone wall of an immortal fortress. Their battered hearts were the cornerstone, and the walls of that mighty keep were proof against all the machines of war.
Steve O'Connor's stories have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, The Bridge Review, and Watchword; his essays in Irish America, Fiddler Magazine, ESL, and upcoming in The Oregon Literary Review. His short story "The Hipster's Hopper" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Steve was born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, and enjoys playing over the hill soccer, watching classic movies, sawing away on the fiddle, and spending time with his wife Olga Ortiz O'Connor and their two children.