Authors: William Kennedy
by William Kennedy
Copyright William Kennedy, 1979, 1981, 1983
All rights reserved
First published in the United States of America by The Viking Press 1983
Published in Penguin Books 1984
ISBN 0 1400.70206
This book is for four good men:
Bill Segarra, Tom Smith,
Harry Staley, and Frank Trippett.
Tall Ironweed is a member of the Sunflower Family (Asteraceae). It has a tall erect stem and bears deep purple-blue flower heads in loose terminal clusters. Its leaves are long and thin and pointed, their lower surfaces downy. Its fruit is seed-like, with a double set of purplish bristles. It flowers from August to October in damp, rich soil from New York south to Georgia, west to Louisiana, north to Missouri, Illinois and Michigan. The name refers to the toughness of the stem.
— Adapted from The Audubon Society’s
Field Guide to North A merican Wildflowers
To course o’er better waters now hoists sail the little bark of my wit, leaving behind her a sea so cruel.
Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods. The truck was suddenly surrounded by fields of monuments and cenotaphs of kindred design and striking size, all guarding the privileged dead. But the truck moved on and the limits of mere privilege became visible, for here now came the acres of truly prestigious death: illustrious men and women, captains of life without their diamonds, furs, carriages, and limousines, but buried in pomp and glory, vaulted in great tombs built like heavenly safe deposit boxes, or parts of the Acropolis. And ah yes, here too, inevitably, came the flowing masses, row upon row of them under simple headstones and simpler crosses. Here was the neighborhood of the Phelans.
Francis’s mother twitched nervously in her grave as the truck carried him nearer to her; and Francis’s father lit his pipe, smiled at his wife’s discomfort, and looked out from his own bit of sod to catch a glimpse of how much his son had changed since the train accident.
Francis’s father smoked roots of grass that died in the periodic droughts afflicting the cemetery. He stored the root essence in his pockets until it was brittle to the touch, then pulverized it between his fingers and packed his pipe. Francis’s mother wove crosses from the dead dandelions and other deep-rooted weeds; careful to preserve their fullest length, she wove them while they were still in the green stage of death, then ate them with an insatiable revulsion.
“Look at that tomb,” Francis said to his companion. “Ain’t that somethin’? That’s Arthur T. Grogan. I saw him around Albany when I was a kid. He owned all the electricity in town.”
“He ain’t got much of it now,” Rudy said.
“Don’t bet on it,” Francis said. “Them kind of guys hang on to a good thing.”
The advancing dust of Arthur T. Grogan, restless in its simulated Parthenon, grew luminous from Francis’s memory of a vital day long gone. The truck rolled on up the hill.
FARRELL, said one roadside gravestone. KENNEDY, said another. DAUGHERTY, McILHENNY, BRUNELLE, McDONALD, MALONE, DWYER, and WALSH, said others. PHELAN, said two small ones.
Francis saw the pair of Phelan stones and turned his eyes elsewhere, fearful that his infant son, Gerald, might be under one of them. He had not confronted Gerald directly since the day he let the child slip out of its diaper. He would not confront him now. He avoided the Phelan headstones on the presumptive grounds that they belonged to another family entirely. And he was correct. These graves held two brawny young Phelan brothers, canalers both, and both skewered by the same whiskey bottle in 1884, dumped into the Erie Canal in front of The Black Rag Saloon in Watervliet, and then pushed under and drowned with a long stick. The brothers looked at Francis’s clothes, his ragged brown twill suit jacket, black baggy pants, and filthy fireman’s blue shirt, and felt a kinship with him that owed nothing to blood ties. His shoes were as worn as the brogans they both had been wearing on the last day of their lives. The brothers read also in Francis’s face the familiar scars of alcoholic desolation, which both had developed in their graves. For both had been deeply drunk and vulnerable when the cutthroat Muggins killed them in tandem and took all their money: forty-eight cents. We died for pennies, the brothers said in their silent, dead-drunken way to Francis, who bounced past them in the back of the truck, staring at the emboldening white clouds that clotted the sky so richly at midmorning. From the heat of the sun Francis felt a flow of juices in his body, which he interpreted as a gift of strength from the sky.
“A little chilly,” he said, “but it’s gonna be a nice day.”
“If it don’t puke,” said Rudy.
“You goddamn cuckoo bird, you don’t talk about the weather that way. You got a nice day, take it. Why you wanna talk about the sky pukin’ on us?”
“My mother was a full-blooded Cherokee,” Rudy said.
“You’re a liar. Your old lady was a Mex, that’s why you got them high cheekbones. Indian I don’t buy.”
“She come off the reservation in Skokie, Illinois, went down to Chicago, and got a job sellin’ peanuts at Wrigley Field.”
“They ain’t got any Indians in Illinois. I never seen one damn Indian all the time I was out there.”
“They keep to themselves,” Rudy said.
The truck passed the last inhabited section of the cemetery and moved toward a hill where raw earth was being loosened by five men with pickaxes and shovels. The driver parked and unhitched the tailgate, and Francis and Rudy leaped down. The two then joined the other five in loading the truck with the fresh dirt. Rudy mumbled aloud as he shoveled: “I’m workin’ it out.”
“What the hell you workin’ out now?” Francis asked.
“The worms,” Rudy said. “How many worms you get in a truckload of dirt.”
“You countin’ ‘em?”
“Hundred and eight so far,” said Rudy.
“Dizzy bedbug,” said Francis.
When the truck was fully loaded Francis and Rudy climbed atop the dirt and the driver rode them to a slope where a score of graves of the freshly dead sent up the smell of sweet putrescence, the incense of unearned mortality and interrupted dreams. The driver, who seemed inured to such odors, parked as close to the new graves as possible and Rudy and Francis then carried shovelfuls of dirt to the dead while the driver dozed in the truck. Some of the dead had been buried two or three months, and yet their coffins were still burrowing deeper into the rainsoftened earth. The gravid weight of the days they had lived was now seeking its equivalent level in firstborn death, creating a rectangular hollow on the surface of each grave. Some of the coffins seemed to be on their way to middle earth. None of the graves were yet marked with headstones, but a few were decorated with an American flag on a small stick, or bunches of faded cloth flowers in clay pots. Rudy and Francis filled in one hollow, then another. Dead gladiolas, still vaguely yellow in their brown stage of death, drooped in a basket at the head of the grave of Louis (Daddy Big) Dugan, the Albany pool hustler who had died only a week or so ago from inhaling his own vomit. Daddy Big, trying futilely to memorize anew the fading memories of how he used to apply topspin and reverse English to the cue ball, recognized Franny Phelan, even though he had not seen him in twenty years.
“I wonder who’s under this one,” Francis said.
“Probably some Catholic,” Rudy said.
“Of course it’s some Catholic, you birdbrain, it’s a Catholic cemetery.”
“They let Protestants in sometimes,” Rudy said.
“They do like hell.”
“Sometimes they let Jews in too. And Indians.”
Daddy Big remembered the shape of Franny’s mouth from the first day he saw him playing ball for Albany at Chadwick Park. Daddy Big sat down front in the bleachers behind the third-base line and watched Franny on the hot corner, watched him climb into the bleachers after a foul pop fly that would have hit Daddy Big right in the chest if Franny hadn’t stood on his own ear to make the catch. Daddy Big saw Franny smile after making it, and even though his teeth were almost gone now, Franny smiled that same familiar way as he scattered fresh dirt on Daddy Big’s grave.
Your son Billy saved my life, Daddy Big told Francis. Turned me upside down and kept me from chokin’ to death on the street when I got sick. I died anyway, later. But it was nice of him, and I wish I could take back some of the lousy things I said to him. And let me personally give you a piece of advice. Never inhale your own vomit.
Francis did not need Daddy Big’s advice. He did not get sick from alcohol the way Daddy Big had. Francis knew how to drink. He drank all the time and he did not vomit. He drank anything that contained alcohol, anything, and he could always walk, and he could talk as well as any man alive about what was on his mind. Alcohol did put Francis to sleep, finally, but on his own terms. When he’d had enough and everybody else was passed out, he’d just put his head down and curl up like an old dog, then put his hands between his legs to protect what was left of the jewels, and he’d cork off. After a little sleep he’d wake up and go out for more drink. That’s how he did it when he was drinking. Now he wasn’t drinking. He hadn’t had a drink for two days and he felt a little bit of all right. Strong, even. He’d stopped drinking because he’d run out of money, and that coincided with Helen not feeling all that terrific and Francis wanting to take care of her. Also he had wanted to be sober when he went to court for registering twenty-one times to vote. He went to court but not to trial. His attorney, Marcus Gorman, a wizard, found a mistake in the date on the papers that detailed the charges against Francis, and the case was thrown out. Marcus charged people five hundred dollars usually, but he only charged Francis fifty because Martin Daugherty, the newspaper columnist, one of Francis’s old neighbors, asked him to go easy. Francis didn’t even have the fifty when it came time to pay. He’d drunk it all up. Yet Marcus demanded it.
“But I ain’t got it,” Francis said.
“Then go to work and get it,” said Marcus. “I get paid for what I do.”
“Nobody’ll put me to work,” Francis said. “I’m a bum.”
“I’ll get you some day work up at the cemetery,” Marcus said.
And he did. Marcus played bridge with the bishop and knew all the Catholic hotshots. Some hotshot ran Saint Agnes Cemetery in Menands. Francis slept in the weeds on Dongan Avenue below the bridge and woke up about seven o’clock this morning, then went up to the mission on Madison Avenue to get coffee. Helen wasn’t there. She was truly gone. He didn’t know where she was and nobody had seen her. They said she’d been hanging around the mission last night, but then went away. Francis had fought with her earlier over money and she just walked off someplace, who the hell knows where?
Francis had coffee and bread with the bums who’d dried out, and other bums passin’ through, and the preacher there watchin’ everybody and playin’ grabass with their souls. Never mind my soul, was Francis’s line. Just pass the coffee. Then he stood out front killin’ time and pickin’ his teeth with a matchbook cover. And here came Rudy.
Rudy was sober too for a change and his gray hair was combed and trimmed. His mustache was clipped and he wore white suede shoes, even though it was October, what the hell, he’s just a bum, and a white shirt, and a crease in his pants. Francis, no lace in one of his shoes, hair matted and uncut, smelling his own body stink and ashamed of it for the first time in memory, felt deprived.
“You lookin’ good there, bum,” Francis said.
“I been in the hospital.”
“No shit. Cancer?”
“He says to me you’re gonna die in six months. I says I’m gonna wine myself to death. He says it don’t make any difference if you wined or dined, you’re goin’. Goin’ out of this world with a cancer. The stomach, it’s like pits, you know what I mean? I said I’d like to make it to fifty. The doc says you’ll never make it. I said all right, what’s the difference?”
“Too bad, grandma. You got a jug?”
“I got a dollar.”
“Jesus, we’re in business,” Francis said.
But then he remembered his debt to Marcus Gorman.
“Listen, bum,” he said, “you wanna go to work with me and make a few bucks? We can get a couple of jugs and a flop tonight. Gonna be cold. Look at that sky.”
“The cemetery. Shovelin’ dirt.”
“The cemetery. Why not? I oughta get used to it. What’re they payin’?”
“Who the hell knows?”
“I mean they payin’ money, or they give you a free grave when you croak?”
“If it ain’t money, forget it,” Francis said. “I ain’t shovelin’ out my own grave.”
They walked from downtown Albany to the cemetery in Menands, six miles or more. Francis felt healthy and he liked it. It’s too bad he didn’t feel healthy when he drank. He felt good then but not healthy, especially not in the morning, or when he woke up in the middle of the night, say. Sometimes he felt dead. His head, his throat, his stomach: he needed to get them all straight with a drink, or maybe it’d take two, because if he didn’t, his brain would overheat trying to fix things and his eyes would blow out. Jeez it’s tough when you need that drink and your throat’s like an open sore and it’s four in the morning and the wine’s gone and no place open and you got no money or nobody to bum from, even if there was a place open. That’s tough, pal. Tough.