cont’d from part 1/10
I’ll never forget how the sun blazed down on Dusty’s fair skin that day. Almost like the spotlight had finally found its mark on the stage. It was a Sunday. I remember because it was the day all the churchgoers—every man, woman and child still well enough to breathe—would pack up a loaf of bread and a scratchy wool blanket and amble down to the ballpark just as soon as the preacher had said his final words.
It was an easy trip for the Protestants. The old ball grounds lay just beyond the twisted rails of Odd Fellows Cemetery. It formed an imposing border around the English church.
The Irish had to make their way across town from St. Ignatius. Good old St. Iggy’s, they called it. Were always complaining about having to travel such a ways, but there wasn’t a member of that congregation ever missed an inning of Canary baseball.
They’d scuttle down from St. Iggy’s with a scattered band of the Russian Orthodox, and they lay blankets right down next to the Englishmen. Oh, you’d think there’d be a whole lot of caterwauling when you get a whole bunch of different groups together like that, but once they were packed along the baselines and stuffing their craws with summer sausages, the Canaries was a united religion.
I was lucky myself—only around fourteen or so at the time and holding down three jobs already. You laugh, but it was a tough landscape and a tough life all around in those days. A family could only survive if it used all of its resources.
My pop and I were the only ones left in our clan. Gram and Gramps passed on before my family’ reached America. Mom died giving birth to me, so I had to earn my share of the family bread from the beginning.
Pop, old Ed Dempsey as he was called, was a popular man in town because he served the nightly beverage. He was the proprietor and bartender of the Bull’s Head Tavern down on Locust Street. Naturally, I had a perpetual list of duties at this seedy establishment on birthright alone. I got to know quite a few of the ball players doing my rounds at the Bull’s Head. They all called me Little Eddie and found it amusing to slip occasional shots of whiskey to Ed Dempsey’s kid.
Course, all the razzing eventually turned into a genuine friendship once I made breaker boy at the great Northern Colliery. Picking useless bits of slate and sandstone from the endless piles of black was back breaking work. Dangerous too. Sometimes they’d send me underground with a skag. My job was to jam a blunt length of heavy steel between the spokes of a moving coal cart before it sputtered off down an endless tunnel. And it was blacker than a jar of ink inside those tunnels, let me tell you.
“Breaker Boys” worked the Anthracite coal shafts as young as 14 years old.
But I always came out alright, mostly because the boys from the ball club kept a close watch. They treated me like some sort of mascot to tell you the truth. It’s how I came to get hired for my third job–and no doubt it was my favorite of the three, being as it was the position of bat boy for the company team. You know, I never could get enough of sitting in the dugout on hot Sunday afternoons and listening to those boys wax on about all the comings and goings, from politics to barroom brawls. And I’d watch ball games unfold the likes of which I’ve never seen since.
This particular Sunday was like all the rest, except I just kept having this feeling things were bubbling just under the surface. The mood in Centralia had been calm for quite some time. It wasn’t a characteristic I was used to seeing in a place where history was riddled with murders and mine tragedies and general unrest.
I wrote off the queasiness to the fact we were set to play our bitter rivals from the Locust Gap Colliery. They were aptly nicknamed the Villains. Those goons would pillage your home and steal your first born child between innings if you weren’t careful. And that didn’t take into account the liberties they took on the field.
Course, the result was a whole lot of bad blood between the two clubs. The townspeople were no different. They came out in droves each time these two behemoths would clash hoping to see some sparks fly or, perhaps, to set some off themselves.
But on this Sunday, to the obvious dismay of a rowdy crowd, the only thing worth watching through eight innings was the outright pitching duel going on between Rube and the Villain’s hurler, Joseph Bellweather.
Those two were absolute masters on the bump that day. Rube hadn’t allowed a man to reach further than second base, and Bellweather, well, the goon hadn’t allowed a single base runner to that point. To put it bluntly, the gangs of Centralian fans lined up along the baselines in scratchy Sunday suits with heavy woolen vests were thirsty for blood. There were a few restless moments after the crowd witnessed Rube bounce his warmup pitches in front of the plate before the top of the ninth.
“Get your head out of the coal hole ya miserable wretch!” The voice rang out unidentified among the masses, but, to me, it sounded a lot like Joyner O’Malley, Northern Coal’s slithery baron and the Reading Railroad’s piss ant.
It wasn’t uncommon to hear objectionable language away from the coal hole–a colliery to the layman–but most Centralians strayed from it on Sundays even if there was a ball game to watch. But O’Malley was immune to all the manners and customs of society. He took every opportunity to show his dominance over the town because he knew no one had the courage to question him. As long as O’Malley could keep the railroad men off his back and out of his pockets, the man had free reign over Centralia and much of the surrounding countryside.
A look at the oldest standing coal shaft in NE Pennsylvania. Shafts were known in the Anthracite region as a “coal holes.”
Nevertheless, I can’t believe O’Malley’s unwelcome remark had any affect whatsoever on a man like Rube, who happened to have a few immunities of his own. Among his strongest was his sheer stupidity. Therefore, either the Villains finally decided it was time to put their offense to work, or Rube’s legs were giving out after pulling a whole mess of extra shifts underground the week before. Whatever the reason, the first two Locust Gap hitters reached on free passes.
Rube stared in at the third batter in the inning. There were two men aboard and nobody out. I could tell Rube was bearing down, really focusing hard on McGraw’s mitt. He was struggling, but he still had his usual bag of tricks. He reared back quicker than he had all day. Everyone in the park anticipated that patented ball of fire to come bursting from Rube’s arm. But when he made his delivery to the plate, it came in the form of a slow, arching floater that took ages to inch towards the batter. When it finally came within striking distance, the batter’s eyes were wide with passion. He jerked the bat hastily at the floater and produced nothing more than a lazy pop to short, handled easily by Honus.
All the while, I focused my attention on Dusty. He stood erect like a soldier in center, his red hair bursting in tufts from the sides of his hat. I knew how much he loved to be part of a game like this. Where other players melted into the easy monotony of a pitcher’s duel, losing themselves somewhere between the strikeouts and the jostling crowd, Dusty never failed to maintain his poise. He was ever-focused on the field because he knew it took only one second of mental lapse to change a player’s fate forever.
You could tell in every aspect of Dusty’s body language he was hungry for a chance. He wanted the ball to come his way. He wanted the challenge and the feeling of balancing on the line somewhere between hero and goat. And ain’t it uncanny? When you want something bad enough you often get just what you wish for.
Rube’s next pitch was greeted with a violent crack. The ball took flight to the depths of right centerfield. It was hit so hard and so deep the Centralian spectators could not help but taste the sour pang of helplessness dredge up in their throats as the runners from first and second gently coasted around the bases towards home.
But suddenly, as if it just popped up from a secret coal hole in the middle of Panhandle’s ratty outfield, a long trail of upturned dust ballooned in the air. In front of it–and you could barely make it out–was an object that couldn’t have been moving much slower than a round of buckshot. See, one thing you need to know is you can’t ever doubt a man with speed, especially when that man has a jolt comparable to one Ralph Dusty McCoombs.
He raced to within five feet of the ball then dove head long the rest of the way, cradling the little, white orb in the palm of his glove like a sparrow’s egg. But it wasn’t all. That freckled son-of-a-gun popped up in a flash of lightning and fired a bullet to second base to double up the runner and end the inning.
I’ll never forget the atmosphere in Panhandle Park after the catch. There were five seconds of complete silence before the crowd could muster up the credulity to cheer for the man. But, boy, did they shower him good as he trotted off the field and into the on-deck circle to lead off for the Canaries in their final at-bat.
Now, anyone who knew the man, and I mean really knew him, like you called him O-D like we used to; if you were on terms like that, you were probably far past noticing his slight stature. The boys would all joke that old O-D had to run up to the plate swinging nothing more than a chewed up toothpick.
That’s why we were all surprised when he went straight for the mallet before this particular at bat. The mallet, of course, was about the biggest hunk a lumber you ever seen. The only one who could swing the thing with any reliability was old Grizzly Bear, and even he usually opted for something that possessed a little less gravitational pull.
“You tryin’ to be the bat today?” Sheriff asked. And boy did he open up a can of the most sarcastic kind a worms you ever heard with that little comment.
“What the hell you doin’, O-D, adding some track to the R&R?” “Darned if you ain’t the puniest sonuvagun I ever saw!” The boys were really off and running. Probably sounded like a pit full of hyenas in the dugout. But the fun didn’t last long cause the last voice was a bit more final.
“Dusty, get your sorry butt over here,” McGraw grumbled in a voice full of gravel. “What the hell you workin’ on here?” What happened next–and I remember this distinctly–seemed like it was out of some dang baseball folklore or something. Dusty didn’t say a darn thing. He just spun around like a mechanical soldier and marched up to home plate.
McGraw was yelling all kinds of obscenities at him. Telling him he’s weaker than the king’s whiskey and that he oughta get a brain up on those shoulders. And Dusty just methodically dug into the batter’s box and chanted a few words under his breath. I swear I ain’t never seen a man who stood up there at the plate and looked more intent on hitting one halfway to the moon..
Then the pitch came hurtling in, and Dusty took that mallet and did the only thing he could do with it. He bunted. All the fielders could do was attempt to conceal surprise as they watched the ball trickle down the third base side and a streak of orange dust lined its way past first base.
McGraw’s string of obscenity-laced rage came to a halt, as did the pack of wild hyenas in the Canaries dugout. About the only ones who could make a sound were the home town fans, who grew even more excited on the next pitch as Dusty swiped second and reached third on a wild throw into center.
With the Canaries leadoff man–the undisputed fastest man in three counties–on third with no outs, you could probably guess how things ended. Old Chief Bender came up and, within a pitch or two, lofted a lazy fly out to right field to plate Dusty and end the game. That night, Chief was what we might have called a ho-hum hero. Hero because he’d technically knocked in the game winning run. Ho-hum because it was actually Dusty’s heroics that made it all possible.
Either way, the fans were happy. The feeling hard to come by in those parts, but you could always count on it after a Canaries home game. Centralians would take it back with them to the coal patch homes and inject it into the bleak structures, giving them temporary life. But first, as was custom, they’d seek out their favorite players on the field and offer their gratitude as their kids ran silly foot races around the base lines at Panhandle Park and fantasized about playing for the Canaries one day.
It was also the best time to witness one of the most depressing transformations you never wanted to see.
Like I said, Dusty achieved god-like status among the Anthracites in every way on that baseball diamond. But once he crossed those lines, the man was a bag full of nerves. He wasn’t the smartest man in the world, had trouble speaking, couldn’t read or write. His standards of education didn’t meet those of his coal mining contemporaries, and that wasn’t saying much.
Most people who came in contact with Dusty left with the impression the man was either a blithering idiot or some kind of mental reject. Course, he was neither—just a touch too aware of his deficiencies and a little lacking in confidence when he wasn’t wearing a ball cap. It’s why he rarely made his presence felt outside the ballpark and was always the first player to the showers at game’s end. He’d make every attempt to hightail it out of there once the final out was made so he could avoid coming in contact with any of the townspeople.
This day was no different, except his teammates kept him around a little longer than he would have liked, finishing up their little round of mallet humor. That was all it took for a fan to hook Dusty. Looked a bit like a large-mouthed bass hooked right through the lip, to tell you the truth.
“Mr. McCoombs?” inquired a stout man in a rusty brown derby and dusty slacks. “I wonder if you could have a word with my son?” From behind him, the man produced a short, little runt with a mop full of straw-colored hair ranging beneath an old engineer’s cap. Dusty squirmed and shook his head. His face grew paler and more constricted than it normally did on such occasions. Beads of sweat collected on his forehead and along the rims of his cheekbones.
“Whaa- what a-about?” he asked sheepishly.
“Oh, you know, about being a star ball player and about hard work and the like. Can you do it, old pal? Get him back on track for me?”
“I, uh, I b-better not, mister, uh, sir.”
“Be a pal, Mr. McCoombs. It’ll only take a second. How hard could it be for a big strapping athlete like yourself?”
That’s about when Dusty’s head looked like an explosion was coming any minute. His eyes twitched and his shoulders shuddered, and then he did the only thing he know how. He turned and bolted off into the woods, leaving the man and his son standing in a cloud of orange dust with about the most flabbergasted expressions you ever saw on a pair of faces.
Course I knew exactly where he was headed, or at least I was more’n a bit sure. There was an old abandoned barn in a clearing about a half mile into the forest. Since none of the other guys seemed to have noticed or cared about Dusty’s little incident, I decided to follow him to make sure everything was on the up and up.
I bounded through the woods, following the same trail Dusty’d forged through the bush on a few of his past tantrums. When I reached the clearing and noticed Dusty was already inside the barn, I crept up behind the wooden structure and searched for a gap in the rotted boards that suited me for a bit of spying. It was a responsible sort of spying, of course. Not like I was trying to steal military secrets or anything.
Once I got a clear view into the stable area, I was able to see O-D sitting idly on an old stump with a book in his hand. I couldn’t see much use in him holding a book, as he had a better chance of reading a fortune off my palm than of reading a single word of that text. I think he saw the fruitlessness as well, because the book came flying in my direction and slammed clear into the faded and rotting bead board I had my nose pushed up against. Felt like a dang mule kicked me square in the nostrils and the force sent me rolling backwards into an old muck pile.
Just goes to show you what you get trying to be responsible.
When I got myself up off the ground and cleaned to my liking, I looked back through those slats and ,well, old Dusty had himself a lady friend in the barn with him. And not just any lady friend. It was Ms. Molly Maguire, the prettiest girl in all of Centralia. Course, don’t let my wife hear me saying that or she’ll be chasing me through the dairy pastures with a broom.
Well, Ms. Maguire was as kind and gentle as she was pretty. Everyone who knew O-D was aware he and Molly had been friends since birth, some say even before that, though I never found a way to make that work in my head.. They were like brother and sister.
Molly took care of Dusty, made sure he didn’t get picked on too much, but I couldn’t tell you what it was she got out of helping that man so much. It’s why I said she was as kindhearted as she was pretty. She was also just about as good as I was at uncovering all of Dusty’s secret hideaways around town.
“Dusty?” I heard her ask in a silky voice which never went unnoticed by the mining men of Centralia. “Dusty, is that you?” It was past dusk now, so the interior of the barn was dark and filled with the kind of eerie shadows that made me happy to be outside. I watched Molly feel around for a stash of wooden matches hidden not-so-expertly in a section of hollowed-out beam. She lit a match, retrieved the text book, and sat down next to Dusty on the log. “Come now, let’s have one more try.”
“C-c-c..Com…C-c..ugh!” Again, he rifled the book at the slats behind him, but I was quicker this time and avoided additional abuse to my nose.
“It says common nouns, Dusty. Don’t worry, you’ll get it,” Molly told him
“I’m just the town idiot, Molly. Ever since we was jest little ones playing tag in the schoolyard. Old Dusty’s good enough to track down deep flies, but don’t got enough damn sense to read a single word. I ain’t worth more’n a wooden penny, Moll. Leave me here and get back to your honey before you’re missed.”
Molly’s honey, if you could actually call him that, was a tyrant of a man named Joyner O’Malley. Like I mentioned, he was the local coal baron and he held much more control over Centralia than he needed or deserved. The same was true of his claim over Molly, who’d been promised to O’Malley by her parents to pay off mortgage debts. More or less, she agreed to marry the monster, and the monster agreed to let her parents continue breathing Centralia’s coal-stenched air. For obvious reasons, Dusty was wise not to be seen on such friendly terms with Molly.
“Why, Dusty, you’re talking a big heap of nonsense and it’s not becomin’ of you.”
“Tell that to the crowd at Panhandle think I’m a dang fool. Can’t even give a coupla words to a six-year-old kid.”
“You know that’s not true, Dust—“
“It is true! I couldn’t get out so much as a stutter to that child before I went boltin’ through the bush. It’s always the same story with me,” he said, “no brain and no purpose, and no place where I fit.”
“How about the Canaries, Dusty? You fit with them like a nail to wood. Out on the field you’re a person. More than a person. The fans think you’re St. Iggy himself.”
“Until I step off the field. Then I’m just an ignoramus who can do nothin’ but fill a bushel full of coal and toss around a piece of leather.”
“And that’s not enough for you?”
“No, Moll, it’s not. Sometimes I wish I could trade my abilities on the grass for a little bit of ability upstairs.”
“Dust, don’t go singing your lament. Haven’t we been mates since we could barely hold our heads above a strawberry patch?” A somber nod from Dusty. “And haven’t we stood fast through it all?” Another nod. “Dust, your abilities are your abilities, and that’s enough for me. Enough for your teammates too. We respect you whether you’re a poet or a pinch hitter.”
Something about the last statement brought a noticeable change in Dusty’s demeanor, cause as I sat there staring through the narrow slats, I saw the tension lift from his shoulders. His body loosened and straightened upright and a smile darted, if only momentarily, across his lips. Molly always did have that kind of effect on Dusty. Heck, on all of us if you must know the truth.
“You know, Moll, I love ya.”
“I love ya too, runt.” She leaned over and gave him a sisterly peck on the cheek and a quick jab on the arm. Dusty chuckled and pulled her into a great big bear hug.
Then the rotted barn door burst off its hinges.
“What in the hell’s goin’ on here?” It was a man’s voice and, boy, was it teeming with hate and resentment. To Dusty, it must have sounded like a death-shriek from within the very pits of hell. To others in Centralia it was a sound heard much more routinely: the miserable tone of Joyner O’Malley’s whiskey-drenched voice.
He was a somewhat handsome man, or he could have been if he had the capacity to erase an infinite expression of distaste and contempt from his face. At all times it seemed like the emanations of rotten milk were wafting up from beneath curled whiskers resulting in the permanent clenching of the muscles at the corners of his mouth. He never wore anything but a black derby with a wider brim than most, as if to accentuate his importance in the financial structure of Centralia. You never wanted to cross this guy, let me tell you.
“Not a thing going on here, Joyner-dear. You know Dusty and I are like family.” Molly’s voice took on a quality that was sweeter than any even she had ever spoken. It was like she was coaxing a scared kitten out of a tree, only O’Malley was about the farthest thing you could be from a kitten.
“I don’t care what you think he’s like, Molly. You know what I think he’s like? A damn imbecile!” There was a nervous silence and the only sound was the slow, heavy breath of O’Malley. Dusty hunched against a beam as if someone had just punched him in the gut. “And furthermore, I won’t have him handling my goods.” He grabbed Molly by the wrist and whipped her towards the barn door like she was a whittled-out marionette. “I’ll talk to you later. Now go home.”
O’Malley took two deliberate paces toward Dusty with his heavy, black boots. “And you…I promise you…I’ll see to it you disappear from this town forever.”
Those words hung in the air for some time. Heck, they hung in my mind for weeks after the incident in the barn. I never spoke to Dusty about it. Didn’t have the chance on account of what happened next.
See, O’Malley wasn’t much for saying things he didn’t aim to carry out. His undue jealousy towards Dusty was all he needed to get the wheels of vengeance a-grinding.
I don’t know where O’Malley went the night after the little barn incident. I couldn’t rightly tell you about the dark rooms filled with clouds of cigar smoke and less-than-honest men he surely frequented, or about the thick stacks of greenback and promised shares in the colliery that were most likely exchanged between he and some of the most publicly respected hands in the community. But I can tell you that greasy stain of a man built up one curious case against Dusty in the course of just a single evening.
I found out about the whole thing the following morning in the coal paper. Always was big on saving my favorite clippings. It’s the only thing an old goat like me can rely on for his stories, you know. I happen to have the very clip in question right here with me. Sure your professor won’t object much to me sharing it with you. Came straight out of The Mammoth Vein News; a little syndicate run, or at least leaned heavily upon, by O’Malley and his cronies.
CENTRALIA—A local baseball legend and employ at the Northern Colliery took an unusual turn at Panhandle Park yesterday. A one Mr. Ralph McCoombs of 1223 Locust Street in Centralia went from glory to goat after a game between the Canaries and the visiting Villains. The man known to many by the moniker “Orange-Dust” had lifted his team to a 1-0 victory with some nifty base running and a little bit of fancy glove work when he simply went raving mad in the excitement. Spectators, including a Mr. Jonathan Flynn and his young son, confirm the ravings began shortly after game time as teammates from the Canaries heartily congratulated McCoombs on his success along the base paths.
“He just up and took off for no good reason at all,” Flynn reported.
Physicians seem to be in agreement that McCoombs’s apparent affliction was due to the high stress levels associated with his involvement in the Canaries Baseball Club coupled with his strenuous duties in the mines.
Dr. Gates of St. Mary’s Hospital issued a statement on the matter this morning. “Mr. McCoombs, whom we’ve successfully detained since his startling incident, has clearly buckled under a high amount of stress and has not adapted efficiently on a mental level to his ordeal. We fear he may cause harm to himself, or worse yet, to others and have arranged for his temporary stay at Danville Sanitarium. We will hold an open examination of the subject in question and any others relevant to the case tomorrow morning, at which time we will make a final decision on the status of Mr. McCoombs and his standing in the community.”
I knew the article was just about the biggest load a cow manure in the Anthracite. But I also knew what had happened the night before in the old barn. The words just kept playing through my head—I’ll make you disappear from this town—disappear—vanish—gone. That evil-eyed specter with the greasy sneer had said it, and now he was bringing it to fruition.
It brings about a sad chapter in my life, what I’m about to tell you. Course I’m not all too proud of it, but it’s part of the story and I definitely owe it to you. It’s a sad chapter because it’s when I learned about the meek and the money. I always call it that, the meek and the money. It’s like a rule to me. The rule of being ruled, and it is this: those who control the money also control the meek.
O’Malley had all the money in the world, or so it seemed to me and probably the majority of citizens in the coal region at the time. And because of this, he could maintain control. He could pay off judges, buy doctors, scare witnesses, have people fired, or make them disappear altogether.
All of these abilities seemed to police themselves. That is to say, even a young chap like myself who happened to know the real reason Dusty was being painted as a lunatic, had no ground to stand on when it came to setting things straight. Who would I tell? What would O’Malley do to my pop? To the Bull’s Head? To me? Who would believe my word over those of a doctor or a judge?
That’s what I told myself at the time, anyway. In the end I could only question myself for not having the courage to stand up when I had the chance at Dusty’s so-called “examination.”
It took place in a dimly lit room at the west end of St. Mary’s Hospital. Ironically, I was the only one in attendance, listed as a non-witness/observer. The judge, in this case, was a full panel of well-respected doctors from the area led by St. Mary’s Dr. Gates, who we just read about in the article. But I couldn’t respect them much because I knew O’Malley must have threatened to make their lips fatter if they didn’t allow him to make their pockets fatter first.
Course, O’Malley was present, sitting magisterially over his court in a dark, black suit. He had no logical reason for being there, other than the ones I had witnessed a few nights before, but nobody questioned. To his right were two large men I had never seen before. They wore white uniforms. I didn’t understand their functions until later.
Arranged along the walls of the dingy room were witnesses or character references there to speak on or against Dusty’s behalf. Among them were Mr. Flynn and his young son, some of Dusty’s less intelligible teammates, a couple of engineers and coal bosses I recognized from around the mine, and Father McDermott of St. Iggy’s Church. At the time, I wondered if Molly had any power in this case or if she were even aware the proceedings were taking place.
One thing I found unsettling was that Dusty’s little trial commenced without him being in attendance. After a round of general descriptions and explanations of what they were calling Dusty’s “affliction,” the doctors mapped out their desired mode of action, which meant they were aiming to load O-D up in a black Maria and ship him off to pasture. It was sickening to hear them talk about it like they’d already made up their minds before hearing a single spoken word on Dusty’s behalf.
“Black Maria” was the term given to the horse-drawn police carriages of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were early paddy wagons.
All the while they’re glancing in O’Malley’s direction and waiting for an ever-so-slight, but unmistakable, nod of approval. But they weren’t gonna stop at that. They wanted to give the whole thing a better smell; a more official overtone. So they heard everyone out, but made sure the questioning kept Dusty on the wrong side of the tracks–which, in this case, meant directly on top of them.
The first of Dusty’s references to be hooked and filleted was Perry Foghorn. Young man didn’t last more’n a minute or two and all he did mostly was nod and chuckle a few times. It’s not as if he incriminated O-D as a loon, but his own erratic behavior didn’t cast Dusty as someone with the best judgment.
To make it seem more balanced, the panel mixed in other references who weren’t as friendly with Dusty. Mr. Flynn stood up next and told a campfire-of-a-story about how O-D had nearly fallen into a fit of convulsions before bounding into the woods in just a dozen long leaps like some kind of deranged werewolf. No doubt his skillful storytelling was stepped up a notch to accommodate the new bills O’Malley had thrust into his pockets just an evening before.
One of the mining inspectors, a Mr. Grant, stepped up next and told of a barely memorable incident where Dusty’d left a pail of water on the floor of one of the tunnels and caused another miner to trip and sprain an ankle. I’d seen others do much worse in that mine, but it didn’t matter in front of the current panel. You should have seen how those doctors commenced to glancing around at each other and jotting down notes when they heard the story.
Then the good Father stepped up and expressed his reverence for Dusty, who’d always attended church and donated when he could. “Fie,” he said, “The devil sometimes do take a good boy from us. Let us hope Dusty is not one of them.” And then he glanced in the direction of O’Malley, whose smile quickly faded back into a greasy sneer.
Father McDermott was an actual clergyman at St. Ignatius Church (above)
If only the proceeding could have ended on that note. It’s not likely the outcome would have been any different, just that Chief stepped up next. He served to do two things: nail Dusty’s coffin shut, and put me in a situation I’ve yet to live down.
Rumor has it, old Chief was up having his share of whiskey the night before the proceedings. Pop was able to confirm that point with me later. One thing he couldn’t confirm was the conversation that took place between he and a couple of ruffians in dark clothes; shadows who often crept in unwanted beneath the barroom tiles and then emerged in a stool.
Chief was a consistent magnet for such thugs, usually out to swindle or cheat the pants off someone unsuspecting. And if there was ever someone you could talk into doing something stupid on your behalf, it was Chief Bender.
No one knows till this day what was said on that particular night between Chief and his shadows, but many suspected Chief was coaxed into turning on his friend, especially based on the disaster that came fumbling out of his mouth when it was his turn to step up.
“You Mr. Bender?” asked Dr. Gates.
“Sure am, doctor.”
“You’ve known Mr. McCoombs for quite some time?”
“You mean, Dusty? Why, of course. I’ve known that crazy rascal all my life. We grew up together playing down by the coal patch.”
The doctor’s eyes blinked quickly, almost unnaturally as if he’d caught something we’d all missed. “You said ‘crazy,’ Mr. Bender? A crazy rascal?”
“Why, uh, yes. Yes I did, sir. All’s I meant was that he was touched in the head. I mean, he ain’t like the rest of us, uh, kind of unusual, no that ain’t it…he’s, a, unique. That’s the one. U-nique.”
Gates shifted in his chair, feigning frustration. “What exactly does that mean, Mr. Bender?”
“Well, you know. I just said.”
“So you say Mr. McCoombs is unusual, touched in the head, and unlike the rest of us?”
“Uh, yessir, but not in—“
“Are those not the words you used, Mr. Bender?”
“Well, I did, but…” Chief was panicked and when he fell on this state he got all sweaty and clammed up and he’d start rubbing his fingers over a small scar he’d had on his forehead since before he could see over the bar.
“Yes, Mr. Bender?” The doctor’s question was met only with incoherent mumblings from Chief. “Mr. Bender I noticed the scar on your forehead. Your personal physician, Dr. Henrich, mentioned to me he stitched that up for you when you were just a boy.”
The momentary escape from Dusty’s woes brought Chief back to life. “Oh, he did.”
“Did a pretty good job, didn’t he?”
“Oh, a very good job.”
“Yes. Would you mind telling us how you got the scar?”
“Well, I got hit in the head by a baseball.”
“A baseball? And where did that baseball come from, Mr. Bender?”
Chief suddenly went whiter than a ghost when he heard the question. I’ll never forget. It was as if he’d finally realized what these doctors and O’Malley were aiming to do and he realized he was about to contribute to his friend’s demise. “Please answer the question, Mr. Bender. It’s a generally simple one.”
“Well, it came from out of the air…and before that, it came from off the barrel of a bat…and before that, well, it’d been tossed outta Dusty’s hand.” He said the last part all muffled and under his breath like no one would hear him. But he wasn’t so lucky.
“So, you’re saying Mr. McCoombs tossed the ball in the air and smashed it directly into your face?”
“Well, it was just an accident.” But the good doctor didn’t pay the slightest attention to Chief’s statement. He only started rattling off questions at a rate too quick for even an auctioneer to get a word in edgewise.
“How far away was he? Only a few feet? Was he worried about you? Did he check to see if you were alright? Not a very intelligent move, Mr. Bender, now was it?”
“He didn’t mean it!”
“Not exactly something a person with control of all his faculties would engage in, is it Mr. Bender?”
“We were just kids!”
“So, the behavior started at an early age, did it? We can only be so lucky to have caught it before something truly regrettable were to happen in our community.” And a self-assured smile rose on O’Malley’s face when he heard the doctor’s canned logic.
Things continued in this fashion for a few more minutes until old Chief just broke down and started crying in the chair. The doctors made their closing remarks, being sure to monitor the ever-changing expressions of O’Malley as he motioned his approval with muted gesture. It was all too sickening to watch, especially for a boy who had witnessed the truth but was too scared to bring it out in the open.
As I stand here before you, an old man, I still feel the leaden weight of my body as I sat attached to my chair, arms at my side, eyes wide, heart drumming in my chest, my voice somewhere else. Only O’Malley looming over me like a gentile Lucifer, his black suit clinging to him like a reaper’s shroud, and my life a mere pea beneath his cloven feet.
I said nothing.
I did nothing.
I remained the same silent fly on the wall I was back in the barn, when the whole infernal mess had begun.
And then, regrettably, I realized the function of the white-uniformed men flanking O’Malley on either side. A small nod of Doctor Gates set them in motion like twin robots. They marched through the room and opened a small door behind the panel of doctors. Inside, Dusty was bound in white rags like a public enemy. The two large men packed him in like bookends, and the whole crowd followed them out to the street.
The quiet din inside the proceeding room clashed against the outside landscape. Word had spread, although much too late. A few groups of Canaries fans stood dumbfounded as the large men led Dusty down the dirt driveway of the hospital. And then there was Molly. She must have heard of the rushed proceedings only minutes beforehand on a trip to the butcher’s. Now she was crumpled on her knees, beside herself with grief.
View down Locust Street in Centralia. The Black Maria carts Dusty to asylum.
There are two images that stuck with me from that day through all my years; almost like little skeletons hiding away in my personal attic. One was of Dusty being taken away from us; being placed inside that black Maria and of the horses just pulling that thing away with a trail of orange dust kicking up behind it. The other was of Molly. No, not Molly herself, but the look she gave old Joyner O’Malley as that Maria was trailing off.
Boy, that look.
I’d have much rather taken a railroad tie square between the face than catch that look from Ms. Molly Maguire.
TO BE CONTINUED
Come back next Thursday for Black Yarn Part 3/10 – “THE CHIEF”
Chris Perkel & Georgie Roland’s “The Town that Was” (2007)