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Peter Cooper

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Tom Payne
By Peter Cooper
Friday, September 19, 2003

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Hot days in the steel mill don't always lead to hot nights in town.

"These are times that try men's souls." It was his mother's favorite phrase after his father died. No matter the occasion, she could find some pessimistic element and wring out all the sorrow she could muster. And it was a wonder he didn't catch the same anti-social disease as she.

But there was something about young Tom Payne that kept him beyond her sorrowful reach. Not that he didn't love and respect his mother. He did. All his life she had worked two jobs to pay the bills and keep the roof over their heads from leaking too badly. In fact, it was her second job, the night shift at the toy wagon factory that taught him to be a unionist. And while some of his friends kidded that being part of a union at such an early age would make him somewhat cynical, or skeptical of America at best, he never wavered in his belief that unions were the only hope for a just world.

And so it was an odd moment for him, holding his mother's hand that last minute of her blue-collar life, when she looked up through the oxygen mask, pulling him closer with a weary wink and emphatic whisper.


"Yes, mother?"

"You'll not forget the union?"

"No, mother. I won't."

"Good boy." Her eyes closed and opened once. Then as if she were struggling with the wrinkled time card of her life, she looked upward and spoke to him on the ceiling. "I hope you fall in love, Tommy."

And her workdays ended simply and calmly. He released her hand, removed the oxygen mask and kissed her rough sallow cheek. Her dues were paid in full. He was now twenty-one years old, and he had to start paying his own.

Sitting on the bus that was floating him toward Pittsburgh, Tom Payne couldn't help but smile at his mother's last hope for him. He never talked about such things with her, but he fell in love as often as some people go to church.

The first time had been with the daughter of a steelworker; an Irish Catholic girl named Megan. "Pretty Face," Tom called her. Because that was all he ever saw of her body. By necessity it was the most spiritual period of his life.

Once, when they were sixteen, she had convinced him to accompany her to Mass. Watching Pretty Face Megan take communion made him feel uneasy, as if he were an outsider; one who could never be on the inside.

Angela was next. She was an organizer for the Communist Party in America. Tom saw all of Angela's body, and this had a profound effect on his politics. On the other hand, Tom had a profound effect on Angela's body. Eight months later, he left Chicago for his first Party assignment in Akron. Angela sent him a short letter several weeks after he arrived stating, "The party is proud to announce the arrival of of a seven pound, six ounce baby worker. His name is Karl. You just get on with the work. Ill handle this myself."

Tom never wrote back to learn the baby's middle name. Angela would probably have reminded him that three names for one person was anti-proletariat.

But now, three years later, Pittsburgh lay ahead of him. A new job awaited him at a glass factory. The plan of action was simple. He was to work hard, become a strong voice in the union, perhaps eventually become shop steward. But nothing flashy. He wasn't to burst on the scene like a comet, but maintain a certain reliable anonymity.

Beyond the practicality of progressing slowly, the last three heads of the local cell had been beaten up, badly. Inwardly, Tom shuddered. He wasn't one for violence, and couldn't understand why people should get so worked up about the politics of something that was so obviously good for the future of everybody. He closed his eyes and spent a few moments with his mothers memory before sleeping.

Pittsburgh was a bigger Akron; Chicago with more rivers. Especially the areas around the factories. There were plenty of guys named Joe and Mike; girls named Mary and Peggy. Tom followed his orders and worked hard, lent a steady hand, and religiously attended every union meeting.

One evening as Tom was walking out the gate of the glass factory, a gnarled old worker grabbed hold of his shirt and pulled him from the done-for-the-day stream.

"I been watching you, boy." came a rheumatic snarl. "You one of them Commies?"

Tom studied the wizened, wrinkled face. "I'm a member of the Party, if that's what you mean." He held his breath at this confidence.

"That's what I mean." The old crone barely came up level to Tom's shoulder, bent over and used up. But his eyes sparkled and his mouth caught a part of the grin. "When's the last time you had a home-cooked meal?"

Tom smiled. "Months. What people I have are all in Chicago."

"Then, come on with me, boy."

Having made the invitation, the old man headed up the street with Tom in tow, holding on to the younger man's sleeve as they walked through the darkened streets. There wasn't enough money or time to keep the homes pretty like the suburbs, but the area was relatively clean. The old guy clung to his prey so protectively, Tom wasn't sure whether it wasn't a codger's scheme to save energy. Once in awhile the geezer would pause to spit out a rankle of phlegm.

"Now, don't mind the Missus none when she starts spouting about our politics. A bitter woman. Blames the Party for our troubles."

"What kind of troubles?" Asked Tom.

"She'll tell yah. Ah, she's got a list as long as your arm. Memorized. I swear, she goes over it all day just sose she can throw it at me every night over suppin'."

"I try not to discuss politics over dinner." Tom said sheepishly. "It causes indigestion."

"Why do you think I spit so much?" Said the old guy all riled up. "Gotta get the bile outta my system 'fore she fills it up again. Found out early on a man's gotta balance 'is own life."

The old man pushed Tom up the steps of a small frame house eight blocks from the factory. A loud voice boomed through the thin glass window as soon as their footsteps sounded on the porch.

"That you, Hank?"

"Yeah, it's me. Matilda. Who the hell you expectin'?"

"Hurry in. Everything'll be cold in a minute."

"Comin', Tilda. Set another place. Brung a young friend from Chicago."

"What are you tellin' me, Hank?"

Matilda came down the narrow hallway wiping her hands in her apron. She filled the narrow space quite admirably. Hank lowered his head even further and whispered aside to Tom, "Hang your coat here, boy. And pay no mind"

"What's this about another place at the table?" She caught sight of Tom behind Hank, who looked as if he suddenly needed to spit badly. Her eye was sharp and practiced.

"Party." She said it disgustedly, a bad taste kind of word.

"Tilda, the boy's got no family here. Look at him. Could use a good meal, if you ask me."

"If you ask me" Matilda reared back, then broke off, crossing herself as she returned to the kitchen. Tom caught Hank as he started after her.

"Hank, I don't want to impose."

"Nonsense boy," he said without turning around. "I told you, she's just got her ways, that's all."

There was a crucifix on one wall and a picture of the Pope on another. The furniture was old and unfashionable, but somehow Tom couldn't see Hank and Matilda having it any other way, he thought following his host into the kitchen.

"Get the daughter, Hank." Matilda snapped, ignoring Tom. Hank pushed back into the living room and flicked the stairway light three times. Hank saw Tom watching him and waved a hand toward a chair at the small table.

"Sit down, boy. Tilda may not know nuthin' about politics, but she sure can whip up a progressive stew." This witticism brought on a coughing spell that threatened to topple Hank's emaciated frame from his chair. Tom moved to steady the old man.

"'sallright, boy. Pay no mind."

As Tom turned back, a young woman startled him. She had entered the kitchen so quietly, he almost leaned over to see if she had feet. She bestowed a kiss on her father's head and sat down across from the visitor, acknowledging his presence with a short nod.

The old man shoveled the food into his mouth. Every once in awhile a bit of potato or meat would fall back onto the plate and Matilda would rear back as if to let loose a torrent of words, then she'd look at Tom eating quietly to her right and grimly go back to her own eating.

The young woman never spoke. The tension at the table was either nothing new or completely outside her world. Tom tried to eat as quickly and quietly as he could lest he invite a conversation. He knew something as simple as "pass the salt" would have invariably led to a discussion of the Communist Manifesto, and that would have led to World War Three the way Matilda was flaring on his left. So he just ate every scrap of food on his plate.

When he finished, he pushed his chair back and smiled toward Hank's wife. "Ma'm, that was delicious. I always thought my mom was a good cook, but this was"

"Save your talk, boy." Hank cut him off. "Matilda knows she's a good cook. Ain't that right, Tildy?"

"Hank, let the boy talk for himself. He was doing just fine 'til you stopped him." She turned to the guest. "You go on into the sitting room. I'll bring coffee and cake in a minute."

"Thank you." Tom stood.

Hank looked up from his seat and smiled. "You go on in, boy. I'll be right along."

As Tom sat in the living room, he could hear the couple's harsh exchange of whispers. The conversation, muted as it was, filtered easily through the paper-thin walls.

"Tildy, he's the one. I just know it."

"Stop it, Hank. I'm telling you right now. If you push this thing I'm gonna send her to my sister's."

"But, Tildy. I just know"

"Stop it."

"You saw him. He's a nice boy. I tole you, I been watchin' him at work."

"I don't care if you watch him in his sleep. Let it go. You'll only ruin things."

Hank limped down the hall. His face was screwed up in thought. When he realized Tom was looking at him, his face cleared into an embarrassed wrinkle.

"Ah, just wanted towell, sheuh." He patted his top pocket. "You smoke, boy?"

"Thanks," smiled Tom, relieved they both had an escape from the moment. Hank fumbled for the pack of cigarettes and Tom reached for his own. "No, Hank. Here, have one of mine. I owe you that, at least."

"No, boy. You don't owe me. Plenty others do, mind yahbut not you."

Nevertheless, Hank accepted a cigarette. The first puff of smoke made him cough and he sat heavily into an overstuffed chair.

"Yah know, boy. This is the sum total of my life. This room, the wife, the daughter. Not much for sixty years of workin' my tail off."

"Some people have less."

"True 'nuff, son. But plenty got more. Lots more. Now, I don't begrudge 'em, seecause most is honest. I won't take that away from the 'merican people. Gotta be fair, boy. Always 'member that. Be fair."

Hank peered at Tom through a cloud of smoke. The body may have not had much left, but the eyes cut through sharply. "You'll go far, boy. Cause you got honest respect. Lots of them bastards out there got respect. Long as you buy their products, and don' kick up no fuss when it's broke in six months; long as you let 'em charge yah outrageous interest for usin' money that ain't theirs in the first place. Their kind a respect always got a 'long as' attached to it."

The daughter walked silently into the room and ruffled her father's hair. The father took the hand, gentlysomething soft and precious. Tom felt embarrassed watching their display, but he couldn't look away, either. He was trapped by the simple emotion's naked obscenity.

Then Hank pulled her hand down to his chest and pointed in their guest's direction. She looked at Tom for what seemed to be the first time and then did something that took all the obscenity from what he'd witnessed the moment before: She giggled whisperingly, then ran upstairs like a gangly fawn. Her father's idea had lit a small fire in her eyes. More like a spark to kindling. Megan had had fire in her eyes. So did Angela, But their fires were older, longer burning.

Tom broke with his thoughts to see Hank watching him. The old man's smile would have been bigger, given more teeth.

"That daughter of mine, boy. She makes this hell, this miserable life worthwhile." His eyes began to glisten. "Used to think we'd been punished, the missus and me, when we found out the daughter was deaf."

So, that was it, thought Tom nodding as Hank continued. "Used to argue 'bout it. Tildy blames the Party. I blamed it on the church-goin' when Tildy was carryin' her. But I tell yah, boy. If there's justice in this worldthat daughter of mine is livin' proof that things balance out. A sweeter creature never walked this earth."

"I can see that," said Tom. He didn't need any convincing. He was already in love.

The two men spent the rest of the evening discussing baseball over coffee and cake. Matilda finished in the kitchen just as Tom was preparing to leave.

"M'am, thank you for a wonderful dinner. I'm sorry if I was any bother."

There was a different flare in Matilda's eyes as she shook his hand goodnight. "You want a home cooked meal some time, you just come by. You were no trouble at all."

Hank walked him down to the sidewalk, again holding on to Tom's sleeve for support. "I tell yah, boy. You had a wonderful effect on the missus. She likes yah, I can tell."

"Thanks, Hank. I'll see you at work tomorrow?"

"Aye, boy. In the morning.

That night, Tom slept with his mother's smile just above him, a happy nightlight. The world that he had hoped to conquer had become manageable, just the right size. And that morning, he whistled on his way to work, feeling better than he could remember.

When he arrived in the locker room, he looked for Hank, but couldn't find his new friend. Nor at lunch, or after work. The next day, still no Hank and he checked with the foreman. Hank wouldn't be coming in for a long while, if ever. He was in the hospital.

After work, Tom rushed to the small frame house eight blocks from the factory. Matilda greeted him at the door. Her face was gray and without energy.

"Thank you for coming by, son. Hank's done nothing but talk about you since dinner the other night."

"Which hospital is he in?"

"County. Only place we could afford." Then she broke down and Tom reached to sustain her shoulders.

"I'll go see him. Do you need anything?"

"No son. You go ahead. Hank'll be glad to see you."

There was only one hour left for visiting when Tom arrived at the huge, lurking County hospital. The nurse at the reception desk handed him a crisp pink visitor's slip and directed him to the elevator. Tom walked into Hank's room quietly. The smell of the place bothered him.

Hank had a needle in his arm, but the old man looked better than he ever had at work. There was a soft serenity to his wrinkled face. Tom looked around the room; white everywhere: bed, pillow, walls.


The head on the pillow turned slowly. When their eyes met Hank brightened.

"I knew it. Jus' knew it all 'long." His voice was barely a whisper.

"How you doing, Hank?"

"Poorly, boy. Poorly."

The effort to speak was great and Hank seemed to nod off for a moment. Tom sat beside him, taking the gnarled hand in his own. Hank tightened his grip and pulled the younger man's hand toward his unsettled chest.

"Knew it all 'long." whispered the dying man. "Came 'long just in time. Soon as I seen yah."

"Quiet, Hank. Rest quiet. You'll be okay."

"Now" A shudder started deep from within the wasted body. The breath that followed never made it out, catching in his throat. Tom pushed the button frantically and then ran out into the hallway for help. Nurses rushed past him, then several doctors. Tom waited by the nurses station.

Twenty minutes later, Matilda walked through the elevator doors with her daughter. Tom didn't see them at first, his head hidden in the woven triangle of his hands. He looked up when a soft hand lightly brushed his shoulder.

Matilda stood at the doorway to Hank's room, unable to enter. The daughter took her mother by the elbow and they entered together. Tom wanted to wait, just to see her again but he knew she'd be busy with her mother's grief. Unconsciously, he touched his hand to his chest and extended the gesture toward the door that had just closed.

Matilda was waiting for him outside the factory the next evening. She took both his hands in hers and looked up at him. He was surprised at how small she had become.

"I know Hank would have liked you to be one of the pallbearers. Is that okay?"

All Tom could do was nod in reply.

"Tomorrow at ten in the morning. Would have had a wake, but Hank didn't go for such things. He" Tom let her cry into the chest that Hank had directed his daughter's hand.

The memorial was held at the union hall. Hank's coffin was not heavy, moving easily into the hearse. It felt so light at the gravesite that Tom was sure they put the dirt in more quickly so it wouldn't float away.

The daughter never cried, but the spark was in her eye whenever she looked at the coffin. She knelt down in the grass and scooped a bit of dirt up to her chest. Then she sprinkled it over her father.

As Tom was watching her, Matilda came up to him and kissed him on the cheek. "You'll come for coffee?"

"I don't want to trouble you."

"No. Iwe'd like you to come."

He sat in the back of the car with Matilda in the middle. The opiate of the memorial was wearing off and Matilda had tears running silently down her face. The daughter took one hand and Tom took the other.

"Old Hank. Good old Hank." Matilda sniffled. "He wasn't much to many people, but he had a knack for knowing things. Know what I mean?"

Tom squeezed her hand.

"Hank told me he knew I was going to be his wife. Said he knew it the first time he saw me." Matilda took the two hands that held hers and put them up against her heavy bosom. "He always told me he'd know when the right person came along. He said it, and he was right."

Tom Payne fell in love as often as some people go to church. He fell in love every morning of the six months he lived in their house, before they were married. Each night when he returned from the factory, still again.

The priest said that when the time came, it didn't matter that she couldn't say 'I do', as long as she made some kind of sign or signal. Even a simple nod of the head or another gesture. And so, with the prayer of two different parents nestled in their hearts, theirs was a quiet weddingsoft and gentle, almost preciousa light flickering in the hallway to heaven.

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