Thursday, February 20, 2014

Baseball Bloodlines: Ashes Under the Radiator

My fascination with my mother’s father—my Pépère—started with moving his toolbox for my Uncle Bobby a couple of years ago. My mother then entrusted me with his pocket watch, providing yet another link to the man I never met.

Not too long ago she unearthed a trove of family photos, many of them featuring the Frenchman I resemble in body and spirit. My mother filled my head with stories of her father. The more time I spent looking at those old photos, the more new tales started forming in my imagination. So what if I didn’t get the chance to meet my Pépère in real life? As a writer, I could bring him back to life on the page!

This is the first new chapter in a much more complex and rich tale about both of my grandfathers. I hope by the end of 2014 I'll have a story ready to sold in bookstores or downloaded on your Kindle or Nook.

In the meantime, enjoy Arthur’s first appearance.

Arthur Blanchette

Frenchville, Maine 1960s

Arthur eased into his rocking chair.

He knew his movements would be limited given the early hour, but his French-Canadian blood didn’t allow him to stay stationary while sitting down. He didn’t want to wake his wife or young ones who wouldn’t be up for another hour or so. At least, he hoped those were the only people still asleep in his house. Two of his older sons better be down at the potato farm getting ready for a hard day’s work. If they weren’t, hellfire would pale in comparison to what Arthur was prepared to unleash.

He took his pack of Winstons out of his front shirt pocket. He slowly and quietly lifted the closest window and the screen behind it. The chill of early October whistled into the house.

Arthur scowled.

He didn’t want the first noise of the morning to arouse suspicion. He tapped a cigarette on his wrist and brought it to lips. His first drag of the day was heavenly. He couldn’t help himself from rocking back and forth completely. The old wood floor beneath him creaked.

He sighed.

He was sure to hear it from his wife now. He sat very still and waited for her to thunder down the stairs and point an accusatory finger his way. She always preferred catching him in the act rather than grumble about circumstantial evidence. However, the moment of crisis passed silently.

Arthur gripped his cigarette with his lips as he straightened his black tie. As the head of the farmhands, he had to look professional. It didn’t matter that by the end of the day his white, starched shirt was as dark as his tie. The men respected he brought class to the job and could still get dirty like the rest of them. He pulled the cigarette away for a moment and watched as a clump of ashes fell to the floor. He’d have to remember to sweep them under the radiator before he left.

He felt around his front pants pocket. He angled past his tangle of keys and removed his pocket watch. It wouldn’t be long now before Al pulled into his driveway. Arthur risked one more ride in his chair before finishing his smoke. The floor didn’t creak this time. His house was on his side for once. He took one last deep, satisfying, soul-enhancing puff and tossed the stub out the window. He stealthily closed the screen and the window. He made sure the rocking chair was at a standstill before rising. He then walked the short distance to the kitchen.

He put the coffee pot on the burner and waited patiently. He had his thermos ready. His sandwich and apple were in a sack in the refrigerator. A turkey sandwich and a Granny Smith was all Arthur needed to get through a day during harvest time. In the off-season, he usually just had the apple. The faint smell of baked goods invaded his nostrils. His wife didn’t like when he overdid it on sweets, but she kept making them. He’d find them tonight. Steam rose from the pot and he heard bubbling. He waited another heartbeat before filling up his travel mug.

Al hadn’t shown up yet, so his first taste of coffee happened at his kitchen counter. It mingled pleasantly with the tobacco still lingering in his mouth. His eyes rose toward the ceiling as he heard his wife get out of bed. He didn’t blink until he heard the bathroom door close.

Arthur sprung into action. He marched back to his rocking chair. He removed his hat from the stand nearby and swept his forgotten ashes under the radiator. He pulled his hand away in pain as the flesh on his right hand made contact with the hot metal. He put his hat on his head and again looked toward the second level of the house. He sure wasn’t the one that turned the heat on this early in the fall. His wife could have every blanket she owned on her and she’d still insist on the house being 90 degrees. Arthur wore short sleeves indoors year-round.

The couple normally didn’t see each other this early in the day. He was usually out the door well before this hour. Yesterday had been a grueling day of harvest, so he gave his crew an extra half hour of sleep to recover. There were thousands of potatoes to yank from the ground, and he couldn’t afford to lose any of his men to exhaustion. Arthur didn’t leave anything he could directly control to chance. He was even alternating his son’s shifts to keep them fresh. God help them if they took advantage of him being more generous than his old man ever was.

Al honked his horn. Arthur would have to wait to see his wife later that evening. She was making her way down the stairs as he retrieved his coffee and lunch. He was already in the truck’s passenger seat when his wife appeared at the screen door.

“Moitzee!” She screamed. “Avez-vous balayez les cendres maudites sous mon radiateur de nouveau?”

Arthur shrugged.

Arthur on top of a snowbank with my mother and Uncle Bobby
“She’s going to light your clothes on fire in the yard one of these days if you keep smoking in her house,” Al said. “A big ol’ pile of flaming flannel. Hell, half the neighborhood will show up to keep warm and roast marshmallows. That fire will last so long, the town might cut its heating expenses in half.”

Highway 1 was empty. The countryside was a blur. Al liked to drive fast.

“Got some new boys starting today. I know, I know, I’m a soft touch,” Al said. “They aren’t criminals or anything. Just some good boys helping their families. If they go bad you can throw me out too.”

Arthur nodded.

“Weather is going to get cold fast,” Al said. “It may not seem that way since its been balls hot during the day, but my feet just won’t keep warm at night. You know I tried to sleep with my slippers on the other day? My goddamn slippers. You figure my feet would have sweated through the yarn, right? Nope. My feet were blocks of ice all night. That means we’re going to have a bad winter. But then again, I suppose we haven’t seen a good winter in more than five years. The only warm thing that happened during the recent winters was your baby girl Gail. What a peach that kid is. She cried for everyone when she was born that February, but not me. You remember that? She liked me best for a while there. I think her brothers scared the hell out of her for a little bit. You can’t blame her. If it weren’t for you and your wife raising them right, boy, I don’t know.”

Signals flashed in front of them.

“Dammit,” Al said.

The two couldn’t see the logging train yet, but they could hear and feel it. They were stopped just before the tracks that cut through the middle of town.

“We’re not five minutes away from where we need to be,” Al said. “Good thing I got the boss with me, so I don’t get in trouble for being late.” Arthur instinctively checked his pocket watch.

“Now don’t get ornery on me,” Al said. “We’ve got more than enough time. Besides, those boys have been working hard the past week. A few more minutes of rest won’t lose us anything.”

Arthur chose not to disagree with that statement at the present time.

“See, look it wasn’t even a full train,” Al said. “Not a good sign those loads have gotten smaller and smaller. Plenty of trees out here, but not many people demanding lumber I suppose. Or maybe I’m just remembering the past years wrong. I can’t keep all these harvests straight.”

They arrived at the farm. Arthur rushed out of the truck. He walked into main barn and took his clipboard off his tidy desk. He didn’t linger and went back outside. He watched the men head out in to the field. He made a small check mark beside each man’s name. He noticed many of the men had been here a while, ignoring his orders to get more rest. He liked that. He liked the sight of his son-in-law Onias even more.

Onias, who was married to his daughter Lucille, gave Arthur a quick wave before continuing his work on the old tractor. He wouldn’t have been surprised that Arthur hadn’t given him a return reply. The two hadn’t talked much since Arthur caught wind of the job offer Onias had from a carpentry company in Connecticut. Arthur knew his oldest son Roland had arranged it, which didn’t make him any happier. Half of his family was already in that state, so he wasn’t thrilled with the thought of another daughter joining them. Besides, Onias was a good worker and a good card player. Arthur knew how much the brothers and sisters hated being apart. It wouldn’t be long before everyone moved down there. He was lucky Bobby and Gail were both young enough to be dependent on him and his wife hated the thought of moving away from where she was born. They weren’t going anywhere without him, that was for damn sure.

Arthur wrote in the names of the two men Al had hired the night before when they arrived and checked them off as well. He starred both so he could remember to keep an eye on them. By the time the last man present made it into the field, only two names remained unchecked. And they were both Blanchettes.

He didn’t try to stifle his anger. He wouldn’t need any more coffee to get his heart rate up. He was thinking of which son’s head he was going to dump the rest of it on whenever they decided to show up.  He took his pocket watch out and balanced it on his clipboard. Every time he watched the second hand passed 12, he felt his blood pressure spike. He knew he was going to be at full boil when his sons were standing in front of him. Arthur’s son Clifford practically walked willingly into his open hand. As Clifford recoiled, Arthur grabbed the collar of Jimmy’s shirt and pulled his face close.

“A man needs to live his life on time! There’s nothing more important in his life! Be ass early, be on the dot, but sure as shit don’t be goddamn late! You lose a helluva lot more than time when you’re late!”

Arthur pushed Jimmy away and walked a few paces away from the boys. It did nothing to calm his anger. Seeing that Clifford’s face red with frustration and hurt made the pot boil over again.

“I’d send you back to your Momma, but she’d goddamn die of embarrassment and shame at the boys she raised!” Arthur shouted. “You let me down. You disappointed me. You lost my respect. Get your asses to work and goddamn earn it back.”

His sons ran by him with their heads down.

“Keep those heads up, goddamn it,” Arthur shouted after them. “You break a leg after being late and I’m cutting it off myself and throwing you back to work.”

He put his hand up to discourage Al from saying a word. Al ignored him like usual.

“A little harsh don’t you think?” Al asked.

Arthur didn’t reply.

Arthur attending a wedding.
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