by Dennis Roth
Harry Grzywinski woke up late and sat on the edge of the bed. There on the floor in front of him were his clothes from the night before. His jeans reaching up waiting for his legs; his shirt, underwear and socks in a distressed pile beside them. He thought, I’ve worn them one day? Two days? No. One day. He stepped into his pants, threw on his shirt and plodded to the bathroom. He leaned towards the mirror and saw, as he had seen so often recently, the reflection of a beaten man; a face lined with the pain from too many years of life, even though he was only forty-seven.
He smelled the fresh coffee, heard what he thought was Janice’s spoon clanking on her morning bowl of corn flakes and skim milk. Down the steps he trudged to the kitchen; a kitchen with battered cabinets, a countertop forever stained and cracked, faded wallpaper curled and torn at the seams, and a 75 watt bulb hung by a single wire from the sagging ceiling, most of which he had promised to fix but never got around to. He went over to the coffee pot and poured himself a cup, splashed some days-old cream into it and slumped down across from her.
Janice wore curlers in her hair, a tattered robe hanging from her shoulders, and a cigarette clinging to her lower lip. To him she looked as awful as he felt. He shivered at the thought of what they had become.
“Watcha gonna do today?” she asked.
“I’m gonna drink this coffee and then go over to Lenny’s and shoot some pool.”
“As usual, I guess.”
He hated her mockery. It was if it applied to his entire life. The desire he had to do anything today was spoiled just like the way the curdled cream fouled his coffee.
“No, today’s Saturday and I don’t usually do nothin’ on Saturdays. Except shoot pool.” “Then what?” she asked.
“Don’t know,” he said as he pushed himself up, emptied his half-filled cup into the sink and tramped out the front door.
His mood was mirrored by the sullen sky and the persistent November drizzle. Again, he shivered. He walked down his concrete steps to Fourteenth Street and turned left towards Carson. In this neighborhood, that could barely be called blue-collared, the three story houses with painted wooden fronts, blistered and peeling, were pinched together and jammed up to the street with no front or side yards. Windows and doorframes were cock-eyed beyond repair. Cigarette butts, Subway wrappers and empty Coke cans littered the broken sidewalks.
“Hey there, Gryz,” called Kupka. “Where’re you going?”
Harry walked up to his old friend, who looked worse than the man he had seen earlier in the mirror, avoiding the potholes that cratered Fourteenth Street.
“Just killing time,” said Harry. “Heading over to Lenny’s. Thought I’d shoot some pool. Maybe get a drink.”
“I’m with you as long as the drinking part isn’t a maybe. I need one right now.”
This had been their routine for twenty years. Get up; kiss the wife goodbye; get a drink and then head to work at the steel mill. Except that for the past four years since the mills had been closed down, they had no work to go to. Their habit remained the same, only they just hung out at Lenny’s for most of the day.
“Gryz, what’s that bulge in your jacket? You getting fat?”
“I don’t get any exercise anymore except limping to and from Lenny’s or the welfare office. You jerk. It’s not like when we were in high school or working. Man, I was as hard as steel. None of this crazy idea of going to a gym or, as the youngsters say, working out. Life was a workout.”
“You got that right, buddy. I try to do sit-ups each morning, but the beer keeps accumulating around my gut.”
They turned onto Carson Street. Once the thriving business district of the South Side, it now appeared to be on the verge of becoming a ghost town. Two out of three storefronts had plywood covering the windows, their doors boarded up. The open businesses were mainly bars populated with men of the South Side who still started and ended each day drinking.
“What a God-damned disgrace this street is,” said Harry.
“The City did put in a few trees, but they’re dead. And they talked about some new street lights to create atmosphere.”
“I don’t get it. How do a few straggly trees and some yuppie light poles help? We need more businesses and jobs. Not trees and lights.”
Inside, Lenny’s Bar looked exactly as it had thirty years before. A twenty foot long bar with red vinyl covered stools, pushed up to the brass rail; two rows of gin, bourbon, rye and whiskey in front of an old crackled mirror; three green felt pool tables with fake Tiffany lights centered over each; a hardwood floor worn down at the entry and sagging under the prolonged weight of the tables. The friends stood at the bar and ordered a shot and a beer, each.
“Bottoms up,” said Kupka.
“Let’s go, Steelers,” said Harry.
They drank and called Lenny over for another round.
“Our team was great back in the ‘70s.”
“Everything was great back then. We were in the dough, too.
“How about that cabin in the mountains I had? Having a great time with Billy and George.”
“Now that was a fun place but neither of them could play cards worth shit.” said Harry.
“All we needed was a case of Calvert’s and a couple of kegs of beer and we were set for the week.”
“And those poor deer. They would just walk up to the camp and, boom, we’d get ‘em. Venison steaks.”
“Yeah, but after a few years it got to be too easy, boring. I’m glad I sold it before the shit hit the fan,” said Kupka.
“And we was shut out.”
“What a waste,” said Harry.
They lit up their Lucky Strikes and turned to watch the pool players. They went over to an empty table. Harry put a quarter in the slot, pushed it into the machine, and heard the rumble of balls released into the bin. Kupka put a quarter on the edge of the table to reserve the next game, in case a stranger would try to cut in.
“Did you hear somebody beat up Malone’s old lady and stole $75 from her? Almost killed her,” said Kupka.
“Yeah, in broad daylight last Tuesday.”
“This place is going to hell in a hand basket.”
Harry said, “Kupe, I’m not sure how long Janice and I can go on. Plus my kids are causing me a shit load of trouble. You know my daughter who moved to Cleveland? Well, she’s getting divorced. I told her two years ago that she was too young to get married. She wouldn’t listen. But what does the old man know?”
“And your boy’s still in trouble in Colorado?”
“He’ll be in jail out there for a couple of years for that stupid dope dealing.”
“I hear ya’, Gryz. I’m tired of shooting. Let’s get another round and then I gotta be going home,” said Kupka.
“Me, too. The old woman will be getting worried.”
Harry stumbled up the steps of his house slightly drunk and slightly sober. He stopped and looked around at the dilapidated street. Waves of sadness washed over him as he remembered how it used to be, full of people, going about their business, or minding other peoples’. Kids playing kickball in the street. Respectable people in a respectable neighborhood.
“Shit,” he thought. “That’s just the way it goes. Dust unto dust.”
He pushed open the door into his house. He went right to the cabinet in the kitchen where he kept the Calvert’s whiskey. From the fridge he took an Iron City beer. He put them both on the old kitchen table. Before he sat down, he poured himself a shot, drank it and washed it down with the beer.
“Hey, you’re back,” Janice called to him from the living room. “Let me get you a drink. I want to talk about something.”
Harry thought, she’s a nice girl. Too bad we’ve gotten so old.
“I’m just sitting down at the table and I already got my drink. What do you want talk about?”
She came into the kitchen dressed in the ‘new to her’ sweater and skirt outfit from the thrift shop. They hung, not unlike her bathrobe, on her withered body. She took a beer for herself from the fridge and sat across from him.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“While you were gone I was thinking,” she said in the voice she reserved for serious conversations.
Oh, for crying out loud. Here comes another lecture. Please let me drink in peace.
“I was thinking about our talk this morning”
“Jan, I don’t remember no talk this morning.”
“I asked you what you were going to do and you said ‘I don’t know’ and I said ‘I don’t know either.”
Harry looked at the sagging ceiling and then around the kitchen like a guilty schoolboy in the principal’s office.
She continued, “What did we mean? ‘I don’t want to think about it’ or ‘I’m afraid to think about it’?”
“Slow down sister. I ain’t afraid of nothing. You know me.”
“Then what did you mean by ‘I don’t know?’” she asked.
“Can I say ‘I don’t know’?”
“No, because I’m serious. This is serious. This is about our future that we don’t have any idea about. We don’t know what we’re doing or why. It’s time we talked about it.”
“Everything’s fine,” he said as he took another shot of whiskey and washed it down with the remaining beer.
“I’m worried about money. The welfare check doesn’t come until the end of next week and we have exactly $7.35 cash.”
“Nah, I got another four and a quarter in my pocket.” He smacked it down on the table.
“We can’t live on $11.60 for a week? Hell, you’ll drink that up in the next two days.”
“Oh, so this is about my drinking.”
“No, you can drink all you want for all I care. Then there’s the roof leak over the back bedroom, the washing machine is making funny noises, and the kids.”
“What’s to worry about? The girl’s getting a divorce and the boy’s in jail. They’re grown-ups. They’ll be OK.”
“And I worry about our health and who will take care of us when we are older and lots of things. Why are you laughing?”
“Because I’m not worried about any of that.”
“We’re in a small jam right now, but it’ll be worse if we don’t do something about it.”
“Don’t worry, babe. I’m gonna take care of things. You’ll see. Everything’ll be alright,” Harry said.
“Bull. I know you. You take care of things by ignoring them. Maybe now’s not the time to be talking but we need to figure this out soon.”
“I told you I’ll take care of it as best I can.”
He stood, looked at the kitchen, at his wife; both like him, old and run-down. He dragged himself to the front door, then with determination pulled it open.”
“Harry, I’m not done talking.”
He stepped out of the house.
“Harry, where are you going?”
He headed down Fourteenth Street towards the abandoned mill, down to the banks of the filthy, dirty Monongahela River. The river where everyone dumped their waste. The stuff no one had any use for. He sat down on a junked fifty-gallon drum and watched the debris flow down the river. He felt a wetness on his cheeks. He never cried. He hadn’t cried since the night Kupe saved his life.
He remembered the accident. At about 3 o’clock on the first night of the graveyard shift, he stood nursing a hangover, trying to keep his eyes open. The furnaces were bellowing heat like a dragon’s flame and the noise was as intense as a wild rock concert. Equipment scurried above and below appearing at random moments, threatening the unknowing or the careless. He didn’t notice he had walked under an iron ingot, as large as a dump truck and heavier than three, being swung over his head. Without warning the chain holding it from the crane snapped. The ingot dangled for just a moment. Time enough for Kupe to lunge towards Harry and knock him out of the way. A corner of the crashing ingot clipped Kupe’s leg. He let out a wild scream and struggled to pull his leg out from under the massive hunk of iron. Then he was quiet.
He just bled. Harry picked himself up and tried to lift the ingot with all his strength. Impossible. It couldn’t be moved. Kupe began screaming again and blood gushed from under his body. Harry made a frantic signal to a foreman who called emergency. Another overhead crane maneuvered and lowered a rescue hook. It raised the ingot as if it were pigeon’s feather. Harry hunched down on the catwalk while Kupe writhed in pain as the nurses ministered to the scrambled leg. He leaned over his buddy trying to thank him. There were no words that could express his feelings. Maybe it was relief, or fear, or gratitude. Harry found himself sobbing, tears rushing down his face. The shattered leg lay twisted at a peculiar angle from Kupe’s body. A double compound fracture. Blood spurted with each heartbeat, squirt, squirt, squirt onto the grating and dripping to the main floor below. They put him on a stretcher and delivered him to the waiting ambulance. It hurried him to the hospital with Harry by his side.
Harry heard the initial prognosis of no hope to save the leg. Amputation. Finally, the head of orthopedic surgery arrived calming the attending physician. In surgery they screwed several stainless steel pins into his leg and stitched his body back together. Harry felt as though he had been kicked in the gut, devastated, not only that night, but the following days as well. Visiting hours were in the morning and afternoon. With Harry’s schedule in the late shift, he was able to visit his friend twice a day the first week. Slowly Kupe began to recover. His treatment included a concoction of painkillers, antibiotics and physical therapy. Finally, he was released and permitted to return to work. For his pain and effort Kupe received a permanent limp and a best friend for life.
Staring at the river, Harry dried his eyes. He watched the clumps of polluted foam, floating beer cans, and bloated fish. His mind drummed, that’s where I belong, in there. But it was impossible for him to think straight; sadness, uselessness, alone. Definitely screwed-up. He looked back over his life. It hadn’t been such a bad one. He had had fun and raised a family. Of course, the fun never lasted and the family had grown into a disaster. Now, he had no job. Not much of a life after all.
The river beckoned him to join its load of waste and garbage. He would fit right in. That play on words made him smile. Then the uselessness took over. He corrected himself. No way is that funny. He pushed himself up from the barrel and took a step toward the river. He moved to the edge of the riverbank and kicked a few stones down into the passing water. He heard the cars, going to and from downtown, bouncing over the Tenth Street Bridge. He could even smell the diesel exhaust of the buses over the rancid, stink of the river. He wrapped his arms around himself and tried to gain control. A great tremor passed through his body. No, not now. The river will be here tomorrow. Then he turned and walked back up Fourteenth Street.
Not half-way between the Monongahela and his home he stopped. The crying started again. Sobbing, without control. His stomach contracted in violent spasms and he screamed gibberish at the top of his lungs. He forced himself to plunge onward toward the house. He barely had the energy to pick up his legs to climb the three front steps. He didn’t open the front door; he banged on it.
Janice came to the door and shouted, “Who the hell is it?”
She heard what seemed like the crying of a child. Opening the door, she saw Harry crumpled on the top step holding himself in a bear hug. Blubbering, “Help me. Please.”
She helped him stand and guided him into the kitchen. She poured a tall drink of Calvert’s and said, “Here drink this. What’s wrong with you? Did you lose a big bet or something?”
Harry drank the whiskey straight down and put his head on the table. “Help me, Janice. There’s something wrong with me.”
“Did you hurt yourself? What’s wrong?”
He hesitated. Harry had never liked to talk about himself, but this moment felt different. He had to talk with someone. Who better than his wife of more than twenty-five years, unless it was Kupe. “I almost threw myself into the Mon.”
“What? What’s the matter with you?”
“It’s my head.”
“Is it a headache? Are you having an aneurism or something?
“No. I don’t know. I just don’t feel right”
“Well, have another drink. That always makes you feel fine.”
“I’m going up to bed.”
Janice was frightened. In all these years of living together, she had never seen him cry nor complain about any aches or pains. He never turned down a drink. This wasn’t like him. She poured a shot and swallowed it. After a few moments, she slowly climbed up the steps to their bedroom. Harry was hidden under the covers, curled up into a ball. Like a baby.
“What is it, honey?” she asked.
A long pause. The house was quiet. She could hear the traffic up on Carson Street. He lay still and she waited.
“I don’t know. I told you. I don’t feel right. Now, leave me alone.”
With as much gentleness as she could find she said, “What’s this about the Mon?”
“Nothing. Nothing happened. I gotta rest for a while.”
She touched his side, rubbed it. There was no response. She stood up and looked at him from the doorway, waiting. Harry didn’t move or say anything.
Janice walked back down the steps. She was still frightened. She thought about who she could call for help. Not an ambulance or a doctor. Just someone to talk to. Thelma Kupka.
That morning she and her friend had an argument on the amount of salt to put into pierogis. She had insisted that Thelma’s recipe was wrong, way too much salt. They’d had disagreements before, as old friends do, but this time it was a little more heated than usual. Did she tell Kupe who then got into a fight with Harry? She put her pride in her pocket, as her grandmother would say, and called her friend with an apology. Maybe she knew what happened.
She answered Janice in a friendly voice and told her that she had no idea what was going on. Kupe hadn’t yet returned from Lenny’s. She invited her friend over to her house on 16th Street to sample her pierogis. Janice admitted that Thelma was right about the salt.
“So Harry really threw you a curve ball today. Has he been doing other strange things lately?” asked Thelma.
“It’s hard to think. I’m so upset. Maybe a little bit more grumpy. Hard to tell. He was certainly acting goofy just now”
“Kupe said that Harry had been talking about being useless and how bad things were.”
“I don’t know. I’m so frightened. What if he is sick. What will I do with my life,” Janice said.
“I was watching on Phil the other day about how men who are in their late forties go through a change.”
“Yeh,” said Thelma. “Phil said it can start when things begin going wrong in their life. Then they just throw up their hands and quit.”
“We’ve had trouble around the house for a while, but I guess we’re just extra short of cash these days.”
“Do you need some help?
“I wouldn’t be allowed to ask.”
“Phil said that sometimes it a good idea to talk with a shrink. Most insurances cover it and he said it can make a big difference.”
“Do you mean a psychiatrist? No, Harry would never go.”
“You remember Billy and George who used to go with Kupe and him up to the cabin. Well you can tell him that Billy and George have both gone to Dr. Spizak and he helped them a lot.”
“Well, Thelma. I liked your pierogis. It was good having someone to cry with.
When she returned to her home, Harry was still in bed but the crying had stopped.
She asked him, “Are you feeling better?”
Harry in his usual gruff way said, “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Then why are you still in bed laying on your side with your knees curled up to your chest?”
“That’s what makes me feel better, that’s why.”
Janice knew better. She might not be successful at being a wife, but she knew how to mother someone. She had raised two kids, hadn’t she, through colds and fevers and flu. It was better not to argue. She blew him a kiss and returned down to the kitchen. She decided to make Polish Kolaczki filled with apricot jelly. These were his favorite cookies. She would serve them to him with a fresh cup of coffee later in the evening.
Harry straightened up and lay flat. He recognized the smell of Kolaczki instantly. Who is she baking cookies for, now of all times? Oh, he realized, they’re for me. She is a good old girl. He felt an urge to go downstairs, but the bed and covers were more comfortable. He rolled over and went to sleep. The sounds of Janice climbing the steps and the smell of fresh coffee awoke him. He sat up. “That’s not for me, is it?”
“Nobody up here except us chickens,” she giggled. She hadn’t used that expression since they were dating; when they were alone in places that no one could find them.
“I guess I’m a little hungry. I could try one or two.”
She knew Harry felt better. He wasn’t happy but at least he was back to being his grumpy self and not so crazy as earlier.
“Only way this could be better is with a shot of Calvert’s in the coffee.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a flask. Without saying anything she poured some into the coffee.
“That’s my girl.” He actually smiled.
She thought she would take a chance and return to the events of the afternoon.
“Did you know that Billy and George had the same kinds of ideas you had. Like about jumping into the Mon and so on.”
“You mean fat Billy and George Gorski?” he asked.
“Yep, you were asking for help and they were too. They needed help to feel better.”
“What kind of help.”
“They went to some doctor named Spizak on Mary Street.”
“He give them a shot or something?”
“Yeh, something like that.”
“Oh, let me be.”
And she did. For now.
The next morning Harry appeared to be back to his normal self. He gobbled down the rest of the cookies and then complained about not having anything to do. She knew better than to remind him of all the handyman projects around the house or washing the car. She simply went along with his usual morning banter until he decided to go over to Lenny’s.
Her fear had disappeared but not her worry. He had been acting grumpier than normal lately, Janice realized. He had reminisced in a bitter way of his younger days and complained about the great decline of the South Side and his life here. She now knew this was not just a stage. Thinking of drowning oneself in the Monongahela was not a passing fantasy. She decided to act. She knew George’s wife from the monthly bingo game at the church. She called her.
“Betty, this is Janice from bingo,” she started. After some small talk Janice said, “Can you keep a secret? My husband hasn’t been feeling well lately. He’s feeling alone and worthless. I heard from a friend that George went through a time like that.”
Betty understood exactly what she meant and had no fear in discussing George’s condition. “He was diagnosed with mild depression by Dr. Spizak.”
“How in the world did you get him to go to the doctor?”
“It was difficult. I tried talking, crying, begging and threatening him. Nothing worked. So finally, I just made the appointment. The union was paying the complete tab so I just forced him to go.”
“George and Harry worked a lot together. They’ve gone through the same bad times with the mill closing and all. Maybe I’ll just call the doctor for an appointment and follow your lead,” said Janice.
Two days later after a lunch of haluski and kolbassi, two more of Harry’s favorites, she let him know that they had an appointment with the doctor at 3:00 that afternoon. Harry’s response was not surprising.
“I don’t need no doctor. I don’t care if George and everyone from the mill has gone to him. I’m not going.”
Eventually he agreed to go, alone. He didn’t need her holding his hand either.
Harry waited without patience in the outer room of the psychiatrist’s office. It surrounded him with painted pastel colors and soft, elevator music. After a thirty minute wait the doctor invited him into his private office. Wainscoted, large executive desk, easy chair and a couch. Just like Bob Newheart’s place on TV.
“Mr. Grzywinski. All of what we talk about here is absolutely private. I will never tell anyone, not even your wife, what we say. Unless you give me permission. Does that sound OK with you?
Harry answered, “I guess so.”
Tell me about yourself. How you’re feeling.”
“I’m OK, Doc,” he said. “I used to work in the mill. Made really good money. Had a great life.”
“But now that’s gone?”
“I hate the mill. The company took my life away. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Plus, just look at the South Side. It’s beginning to look like a slum.”
“I agree with you about the mill closing and how bad Carson Street is now. There used to be a lot of great stores and things to do.”
The doctor continued, “I know what you mean. Did you know there are lots of guys who feel just like you.”
“Sure. What has happened here isn’t normal. Companies don’t usually destroy entire families, entire neighborhoods like these guys did. It makes me mad.”
“Me, too,” said Harry.
“So you like to drink at Lenny’s?”
“It’s not just the booze. It’s the guys and the memories.”
“Sure. So what else do you do?”
“Well, I used to play softball and do jobs around the house when I wasn’t working. Sometimes we’d go to my friend’s cabin in the mountains. Hunting and drinking.”
“You like to drink.”
“Sure. Doesn’t everybody?” asked Harry.
“Well some people more than others. How much do you drink?”
“First thing in the morning with my coffee I have a shot or two. Then I go to Lenny’s and spend most of the day there, except for lunch that Janice makes for me.”
“Now, I have a tough question for you. What made you think of throwing yourself into the river?”
“I probably drank a little too much that day and sat down next to the river. I guess I was thinking that, with all of our troubles, that I should jump in.”
“Do you feel that way now?”
“No, I haven’t had very much to drink today.”
The doctor laughed. Harry smiled in return.
“And have you felt that way before, I mean jumping into the river?”
“No. I sometimes don’t like getting out of bed in the morning. All I do is eat breakfast and go over to Lenny’s and drink with my best friend, Kupe, and some other guys. It’s not much of a life anymore.”
“Harry, I think we can help you find a better life than the one you have right now.”
“I’d like you to meet with an associate of mine who will ask you some more questions. Then we can figure out the best way to make things better. You’d like things to be better, wouldn’t you.”
“Can you meet with my associate Dr. Witrowski?”
“How about right now?”
A week later, he met again with Dr. Spizak. The doctor told him, “It’s clear to us after our meetings that what we have here is a mild case of depression, Harry.”
“So what am I supposed to do with my crappy life?” he asked.
“I’m giving you some medication that should help and we want to see you once a week to talk about how you are feeling.”
“I don’t need no meds,” he said. My life’s screwed up and now I got shrinks watching over me.
“Well,” said the doctor. “The medicine and the talking will help you feel better. Also, you should cut down on your drinking and start exercising. Do you belong to a gym?
“No,” was all Harry said. I been drinking since I was twelve. I ain’t gonna stop now. Just a small potbelly, but, shit, I’m forty-seven years old. I’m entitled to a belly. Who gives a damn anyhow.
The doctor said, “Here are some scripts to take to the pharmacy and a reminder of your appointment for next week,” and he left the room.
Harry jammed the papers into his front right pocket of his jeans and sulked out of the doctor’s office. He shuffled his feet along the crumbling sidewalk of Carson Street, not looking at anyone, not knowing where he was going. I’m not a nut case. The doc’s the crazy one, not me. He just wants to make money offa my insurance. The greedy bastard.
Lenny’s Bar appeared on the other side of the street. He crossed and pushed the door open. The familiar aroma of spilled beer and bathroom disinfectant filled his head. With a chuckle and a smile, he sat at the bar. Next to Kupe.
“How’s it goin’?” Kupe asked.
“I’m OK. I couldn’t be better.”
He downed his shot; finished his beer.
I’m lying. To my best friend, I’m lying.
He stood, placed his hand on Kupe’s shoulder to say good-bye and walked out of Lenny’s. He stepped out onto the sidewalk and headed toward the Tenth Street Bridge. He passed the shuttered storefronts and the sorrowful winos sheltered in doorways. He glanced down Fourteenth Street toward his home, but hurried by. There were too many ruined memories there. Harry turned right onto the Tenth Street Bridge. He could see the fifty-gallon drum he had sat on weeks before. The abandoned mill looming along the banks of the Mon. Then he looked down. The river still carried its cargo of garbage. He watched it float by for a few minutes. Put his hands on the railing and looked at the desolation.
Dennis Roth is an emerging writer having retired from his structural engineering firm, ocean sailing, and watercolor painting. He now turns his creative energies to words in both short stories and poetry. He and his wife live in Pittsburgh, PA.