In the weeks that followed Grizzly’s passing, old McGraw was a madman.
And when I say the man had gone mad, I’m not just saying it for dramatic effect. For example, one day I’m just doing my normal thing up in the coal breaker, sorting out the junk metals from the coal ore, when McGraw comes storming up from out of the hole.
He says, “Eddie, what are you playin’ at?” I tell him I don’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about. He gets all red in the face and screams: “Eddie, don’t play dumb with me you little bastard!” I’m getting a little scared by now and I assure him I’m in the dark about his complaint, whatever it may be. By now everyone in the breaker is staring at us, which is when McGraw goes and loses his mind for good. He grabs me by the collar and shakes me like I was just a sack of hay. Felt the stuffing coming out and everything.
“You thievin’ little bastard!” He’s shouting the whole time. “Where are the baseballs, you little bastard!? You stole them! Didn’t you?!”
By now the blood’s gone rushed straight to my head from all the shaking, and I think for a second I’m gonna lose consciousness. That’s when someone rushes in between us and knocks me to the ground. All I remember is laying on the gangway, face down, gasping for air. And then hear Honus say, “Settle down, Coach. Get a hold of yourself.”
“He stole the damned baseballs for tonight’s game Honus! I’ll…”
“I’ll kill that little…”
“Coach! I brought them home with me,” Honus says and then he continues in a low whisper, “I didn’t want to just leave ‘em around with O’Malley lurking. Last thing we need is him controlling the baseballs and dispensing them to us at his will. Lord knows, he does it with everything else.”
“Oh,” Coach says to me like he didn’t almost murder me on the spot. “Sorry kid.” And then he walks away.
I guess I should have been steamed at McGraw for the way he treated me and for his less than sincere apology but, to tell you the truth, I was more worried about him than anything else. That’s why I decided to accompany him into town the next day to pick up what he called an “emergency stock” of baseballs over at the Mammoth General Store.
I normally didn’t worry much over the team’s personal stuff. ‘Course that had much more to do with the club’s lack of equipment than it did with my actual duties as a bat boy.
But every once in awhile, we’d get low on balls and I’d feel obliged to take the trip across town with McGraw to pick up a pile. The old coach had a way of guilting people into his will, and it usually didn’t include shaking you silly while you were busy sorting coal. No, he’d just lift his cap a touch higher on his forehead so you could get a real close look at his eyes. They were angry eyes, no matter what kind of mood he was in. Man could have just been elected president and he’d still be giving you that cold, steely look. Never failed to work on me.
We didn’t talk much that day as we walked down Locust Street and then all the way across town on Main. It was a brisk walk. It had purpose, but it lacked personality. It was like there was a wall in between us–maybe because of Grizzly, maybe because of how he acted towards me at the breaker. Couple a times he opened his mouth like he was about to say something but no words came out. I didn’t even think about saying a damn thing. I knew better than that.
As we approached the General Store, though, I decided business provided the perfect reason to break the silence. “You want me to run up and get ‘em?” I said. He nodded and handed me a few bucks to buy the baseballs. I was in and out in a matter of just a minute or two, and then it was back to walking in silence, only this time carrying a box full of balls. I thought I was in for a pretty long walk, but it couldn’t have been more than a block or two before old McGraw broke down and apologized.
“Look kid, I was wrong yesterday,” he said. I never shoulda treated you like that.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I told him. But he couldn’t leave it at that. No, McGraw could never just leave things alone.
“Look kid, I’m sayin’ I’m sorry here.” Again I told him not to worry, which seemed to incite him quite a bit more than I expected because he wrinkled up his face and ran a finger under his collar.
“Eddie, now a man’s tryin’ to deliver an apology here. Can’t you just let him do it?”
“I thought you were through,” I said, which produced another wrinkle or two just between the eyes.
“And how could I ever finish, Eddie, with you telling me not to mention it?”
“I told you not to worry about it.”
“See, that’s just the argumentative attitude…” and then his voice trailed off and we were back to silence. We walked with just the pounding of our own footsteps to guide us for the next block or so until he continued. “I’m trying to turn over a new leaf, Eddie. I’m sorry. I got to stop my arguing and fussing all the time. It’s just the kinda thing that got Grizzly into such pointless trouble.”
I told him I accepted his apology and he seemed much happier by my change of phrasing. In fact, he looked so darned happy he did something I never expected to see him do, even in my wildest. As we came walking up to the corner of Locust and Main, little old Irma Locke was standing there holding a bag full of personals and waiting for a buggy to cross her path. McGraw winked at me, then put on the biggest, most painful-looking smile I had ever seen. He walked over to Mrs. Locke with his cap raised neatly above his head in one hand, and he bowed to her.
“Well, Mrs. Locke, sure looks like you could use an escort across this buggy-dotted roadway.” McGraw looked real proud of himself, and heck, I was proud of him too. It wasn’t everyday you saw a man like him offer to escort an old lady across the street. But, boy, did things blow up in his face pretty quick.
“I ain’t buggy-dotted and I don’t need an escort,” she said sternly. And she set her chin and crossed her arms like she wasn’t about to move for O’Malley himself.
“Well, I never called you buggy-dotted, Mrs. Locke, I…”
“You callin’ me a liar then?”
“No, not a liar.”
“Well, I ain’t callin you nothing. Just trying to help out one of my elders when…”
“So, you’re calling me old, little Johnny Williamson?”
“Not old, just experienced.”
“Experienced?! Why, I oughta knock the tar directly outta you, boy! Come here!” And she didn’t waste no time swinging that heavy bag of personals at McGraw’s head. It connected too! Made a dull thud like two pieces of hollow wood slapping together. Just as soon as I heard it, I also noticed the red start to rise in McGraw’s cheeks until it boiled over and out through his ears.
“You old bat! What the heck was that for? I try to be chivalrous and that’s what I get? A sack full of wrinkle salve across the face? See if I ever offer my help in the future! And by the way, the salve ain’t workin’! Let’s go Eddie.” And then he walked away, leaving old Mrs. Locke to fend for herself in the middle of street.
“You ain’t no knight of the round table, McGraw!” she screeched from behind us, her fists piercing the air. “And don’t you forget it!” McGraw spat and walked off. He never bothered to look back.
See, that was the problem with McGraw. He always acted as if he was competing in a ball game no matter where he was in life. Lots a times that contributed to him treating people like they were on the opposing team, or worse, like they were the umpires.
Boy, did that man have a primal distaste for the men in blue. Kicked dirt in their direction just about every chance he got. And his behavior seemed to spill out off the field too, as I think you might have noticed through his run-in with Mrs. Locke. Trouble was, old McGraw would have been alright treating reality like it was a ball game if he would have just used the good parts, cause that man could think his way out of just about any trouble you might find yourself in on a ball field. Case in point happened that very afternoon, after getting our stock pile of new baseballs.
We were playing a team called the Pioneers from out there in Danville. They weren’t associated with any of the collieries, just a bunch of farm boys whose granddaddies put together a team and had been playing in our company league for as far back as anyone could remember. Always had a good squad. Had a big righthander the size of a country ox. I bet he coulda thrown a baseball through a sheet of pure iron if he tried.
We were coming in to the last of the ninth and we’d only managed a single run. ‘Course with a few more of O’Malley’s cronies being substituted for Clean-Livin’ and Grizzly, it wasn’t much of a surprise to see us on the lean end of the scorecard. Rube somehow managed to keep us in the game 2-1.
I could tell the inning before the big righty was starting to tire cause his delivery was slow and he kept taking a lot of breaths between pitches. McGraw must have noticed too, cause he gave the take sign, politely asking his players not to swing. He must have given the sign so many times to start the inning I thought he’d need a bandage on his hand. But it worked. Before you knew it, the Canaries had the bases loaded with only one out and the old coach himself stepping to the plate.
McGraw hadn’t been hitting the ball all that well at the time, but he still had a dangerous stroke. What’s more is he had a dangerous mind and a never-ending plan for winning mapped out in his head at all times.
The big righty fired a quick fastball past McGraw on the first pitch and the old coach ducked out of the box and rolled his eyes a bit. He didn’t seem at all confident in his ability to slug one into the outfield or of legging out a double play after crouching behind the plate all night. Course, none of that mattered cause, as usual, he was about to hatch a plan.
He signaled in a bunch of signs to the base runners, making sure to touch just about every part of his body in the process, and then he jumped back in the box like he was ready to hit himself a game-winning grand slam. The big righty rocked and fired another bullet for strike two. Nothing happened on the base paths.
Again, McGraw jumped back in the box, this time pounding the plate hard with his bat. And the big righty fired a fastball high and tight, knocking McGraw to the seat of his pants. The fans at Panhandle expressed their disapproval, but McGraw popped up with a rare smile and dusted himself off. He then touched the bill of his cap, and I noticed, and maybe I was the only one to notice, that all the base runners simultaneously did the same.
Well, the big righty got set on the mound and, before he could rock into his windup, he must’ve seen the runner on third breaking for home. Course he stepped off with a sly grunt and tossed the ball lazily to his catcher, who started the routine of running that baserunner back to third. The run down ensued. Back and forth, throw after throw, everyone at Panhandle being lulled to sleep by the metronomic quality of the action. But nobody seemed to notice the runners from first and second quietly creeping up on the play.
No sooner had the catcher tagged out the hung up runner, than did that runner from second come charging directly around the play. It was old Perry Foghorn, and he timed it perfectly so as to avoid the tag and keep the play alive. That opposing catcher fell into a fit of panic when he saw Perry just rounding him up—so panicked, he just spun and flung the ball at the plate to an imaginary target. I tell you there was nobody covering! Old McGraw knew he’d be the only ball player standing in the area as the ball skipped all the way back to the screen and two runs crossed the plate.
Just like that, McGraw had orchestrated the game-winning runs without taking the bat off his shoulder.
As you can imagine, the stands erupted at the unexpected change of events and both teams retreated to their dugouts to call it a day amid wild cheers. “See boys,” McGraw said when he got back to the bench, “I told you practicing that play would win us one somewhere down the line.” All the boys nodded back or pantomimed their appreciation with a tip of the cap, but McGraw couldn’t relish the glory for long cause suddenly a raving fan, or what we first thought was a fan, came storming into that dugout like he was a member of the team. He stepped right up to McGraw, a move I’d never advise.
“Do you know who I am, Mr. Williamson?” he said with a face as red as a tomato.
“Not really,” replied McGraw, already looking like he was relishing the opportunity to blow a gasket, “and I don’t believe I give a damn.” Two more fans burst into the dugout and took their places next to the first. One was a plain-looking woman and the other Enoch Locke, a miner I recognized from working at Northern. Enoch looked a bit uncomfortable, maybe even a little embarrassed.
“Well you should Mr. Williamson. You’ve made no apologies about bringin’ your…your women to my inn on a consistent basis.”
“You must be Mr. Locke.” McGraw held out his hand, but Locke stared at him with distaste.
“That’s right, I’m Elmer Locke. This is my wife Harriet and my brother En…”
“I know Enoch,” McGraw said in a huff. “And there’s no need for bad manners here Mr. Locke.” Again he held out his hand, and again Locke ignored his offer.
“I’m not here to make your acquaintance—.”
“Then get to the goddamned point!” McGraw yelled. His face was beet red and those eyes, well I already told you about those hate-filled eyes. But Locke was primed to make his point and he didn’t waste no more time with chit-chat.
“I don’t like people who disrespect old ladies, Mr. Williamson. I don’t care who you are or what you claim to be. You’re no longer welcome at the Locust Avenue Inn, and don’t let me catch you tryin’ to bad-mouth my mother in the street again.” Mr. Locke spit at McGraw’s feet and then turned on the spot and walked away, replacing his hat and lending his wife his arm. Enoch shrugged his shoulders at Coach and rolled his eyes before he shuffled off. McGraw, who appeared ready to burst into obscenities, took a very deep breath and somehow managed to control his rage. It was something I’d never seen before, and sadly, something I’d never see again.
When the lunch whistle sounded the next day, I was quick to attach myself to McGraw’s hip. I knew he was still sore after the way he’d been confronted by the Locke’s and I knew he’d be searching for old Enoch just as soon as he found the chance. I was almost too late, cause when I stepped down out of that breaker and turned to head up the pass to the pond where McGraw had taken to eating lunch every day since Grizzly’s departure, I heard the old coach flexing his windpipe.
“Enoch! EEE-NOCH! You get your sorry ass over here, boy!” he shouted. A bunch of heads with mining hats turned to see what the commotion was about, but when they saw McGraw screaming his head off, they just went about their business as common place. All except Enoch. Course he scurried over to Coach like a wet rat being harassed by the family cat.
“What you want, McGraw? I’m comin’.”
“Boy,” McGraw said, sizing him up from foot to head. “What’s the meaning of storming into my dugout yesterday?”
“Aww Coach, aww, well…”
“You gonna say something worth listening to Enoch, or am I gonna have your nosy little brother down here tellin’ me to lay off his kin again?”
“I’m trying to say it McGraw! Look, I tried to stop ‘em. I know Ma can be as crazy and mean-spirited as a drunken bull sometimes. But Elmer, well…”
“Well, what?! You embarrass me in front of my team cause I offer to help an old lady across the road?”
“I apologize McGraw, I promise. Just do me a favor and steer clear of old Irma for awhile.”
“Do you a favor? Do YOU a favor? Why—.”
“Do me a favor and I’ll talk Elmer into letting you stay at the Inn when you need to.” For some reason, this seemed to please old McGraw. He offered Enoch his hand and the two of them sat down on a boulder to eat lunch. I joined them and, within a few minutes, we were joined by two of the least desirable characters working at Northern Colliery.
One was Billy Meriwiskey. He was a miner by trade, but a swindler and a card cheat at heart. You had to protect your pockets around him. McGraw seemed to got a kick out of having him around because it increased his chances of scrapping, fighting and gambling.
With him was one Jack Sullivan whom everyone called Captain Jack for some reason, though I suspect it had nothing to do with him ever being a military hero. This guy was dangerous, I tell you. He gambled and swindled as much as Meriwiskey, only he was also boot-legging coal. Old Captain Jack was so crazy, he’d come out to the mines at night and dig hand made holes off the main shaft. Any coal he found, he carted off and sold on the black market. It was a dangerous racket. Sullivan supposedly lost an eye doing it, which is why he was always wearing that spooky, black eye patch. Course nobody ever mentioned it for fear of being known as the one who turned Captain Jack in to O’Malley. Especially considering there were all sorts of rumors about Sullivan’s shaded past and that he’d killed his fair share of men. Heck, I think even O’Malley was a bit afraid of him.
But McGraw wasn’t. He’d argue with anyone who stood close enough to him and you better believe he’d bet double or nothing with the devil if the opportunity ever presented itself. Course with so many sticks of dynamite sitting around an open flame, it didn’t take long for the fuse to get lit.
It started out kind of mild, like it always did, with a whole bunch of bragging and exploiting. Kind of a mutant form of storytelling us coal miners had borrowed and adjusted from the Native folklore of the area. Legend had it the Shawnee were real keen on storytelling. Called the act Sekela Seeta, I think, which translated roughly into ‘honey fire’. Probably cause most of those stories were filled with so much exaggeration, they might hit your tongue with sweetness at first but they were liable to burn you too. Course we didn’t refer to them by the Shawnee name, we just said we were “weaving a black yarn.” Kind of illustrated the cruder, darker, more coal-stained types of stories we told that probably got skipped by the Shawnee.
“I remember,” said Meriwiskey, “’bout two, three years ago down in that western shaft we was rakin’, I almost met my maker. Least ten ton a rock come tumblin’ down off the wall in a sheet and crashed right next to me. Covered my leg up to my waist and knocked my light out.”
“What’d you do?” Sullivan asked sarcastically. “You scream for yer mommy?”
Course this got a rise outta everyone, even Meriwisky, who smiled as he continued.
“I wanted to Captain, believe me, but I knew she was busy knittin’ so I had to lift myself outta there one stone at a time, mind you. Took me at least three hours. Didn’t even leave a mark.”
“Yeah,” cracked Honus, “Believe that and you probably believe O’Malley is up in his office achin’ to cut bonus checks!” Again, everyone laughed, and the spotlight, as was custom, was cast on Honus. “Now if you want to hear something true, give a listen to me. Just this morning I’m walking along Railroad Street and who do I see but O’Malley himself. He’s walking out of one of the houses on the street and pulling on his gloves. No doubt he’d been using them to give a few backhands in exchange for a debt, right? Well I see him getting ready to step into his buggy, but first this man steps out wearing a butler outfit and he kneels down in front of the buggy door. Well, O’Malley goes up there and uses that fine gentleman as a stepping stool, he does. I was almost sick to my stomach. So you know what I did? I turned my pockets out to show how empty they were, and I marched right up to that buggy and I say: O’Malley, we’ve had enough and we’re too poor to care about the future. Now I’m gonna get my share of wages if I hafta snap yer neck right here on the spot. And I ain’t about to have you stepping all over my friend here!”
“Come on Honus!” McGraw shouted, near hysterics, “I thought you said it’d be a true story.”
“Well, how can you be sure it’s not, Coach?”
“Cause if you said that to O’Malley, he’d have you holed up in an abandoned shaft by now!” And that got a kick out of everyone, especially Honus, who knew he didn’t have a gift for telling tall tales.
“Now let me tell you a story about true heroism and fearlessness and I hope you’re all prepared to learn something,” McGraw said magisterially. “I couldn’t a been older than Eddie here when it happened. Was down at the old quarry catching a swim when I heard the most awful screaming I ever heard. So I went swimming off in that direction and when I come around the jagged rock and look off into the woods, I see what’s producing all the racket. It was a pretty, young girl, about 18 or 19 and she was backed up against a tree trunk. She’dd dropped a basket full of raspberries on the ground and was being held there by a mighty nasty and very large black bear. The bear was snarling and growling and inching ever-closer to her. Well I jumped outta that water as fast as I could and picked up a stone about the size of a chicken egg. I whipped that stone directly at the bear and watched him keel over, knocked out cold.”
“Was the girl impressed?” asked Sullivan, holding in a laugh.
“Oh yeah, planted a big fat one on me while the bear was still lying there knocked out.”
“Sure couldn’t get a smooch from my mom Irma,” Enoch joked, “Looks like you were more afraid of an old lady than a snarling bear.” And everybody laughed on cue, but McGraw didn’t find it funny. He always did have trouble understanding how this type of miner storytelling was meant to pass the time, not to relive any past glories.
“Let’s not bring Irma into this Enoch,” he said without so much as a smirk on his face. “And don’t accuse me a being scared of some old lady neither!”
“McGraw, I was just…”
“No! I ain’t afraid a nothing and you can all mark me on it.” And McGraw went off in this direction, ranting and raving for quite a few minutes before Meriwiskey broke his obscenity-laced rhythm.
“Not even a whole nest full a black widders?” he asked. This silenced McGraw for a moment before he could respond.
“You said you weren’t afraid a nothing. Does that mean you ain’t afraid of widders?”
“Course it does. I ain’t afraid a no widders.”
“Then prove it,” Sullivan added and he took a step in McGraw’s direction.
“How so?” McGraw responded, taking a step of his own toward Sullivan.
Sullivan jumped in. “Go take a squat in that old outhouse over there along the ridge. No one’s used it in years. Got a whole mess a widders in there.”
“I’ll do it,” McGraw said with finality. “But only for a price.”
“Sounds fair,” Sullivan said with a fiery sparkle shining in his one good eye. “Name it.” McGraw pulled a small roll of bills out of his pocket and fanned it in Sullivan’s direction. “I can match,” Sullivan said and Meriwiskey nodded he’d do his part as well.
It seemed kind of foolish at the time, so Honus and I just rolled our eyes at each other and watched as McGraw trudged off to the ridge to take his imaginary squat in the abandoned outhouse. We called it a ridge but it was really more like a cliff. There wasn’t a whole lot of incline to the hill beneath it, unless you consider a fairly straight drop of close to 200 feet to be an incline.
Old McGraw walked up to that outhouse and slowly reached a single, bony finger out for the knob. He pulled it ever so carefully into an open position and poked his head in to survey the scene. He sure didn’t look like a man who wasn’t afraid a nothing. But apparently his inspection was a complete success because he spun around with a big old grin on his face and waved to us. Then he backed into the outhouse and closed the door. Everything was looking pretty good for McGraw, but things took a rapid turn.
We all noticed it at once–the loose sand and rocks beginning to slide off the ridge just below the outhouse. Then the roof and walls of the old outhouse began to shake a little and it dawned on me, in that instant, why nobody had used the old outhouse in years. It had nothing at all to do with a nest of black widows.
Before old McGraw could make his way out the door, that rotted, old outhouse took one wild lurch to its right and vanished over the side of the cliff. I took off along the footpath because I knew it led down to the clearing at the bottom of the ridge. The rest of the men clumsily followed, tripping over loose rocks and stepping over uneven earth. It felt like it took hours to get down to McGraw, and I was terrified by what I’d find when I busted through the wreckage of the old outhouse.
But when we got to the spot of the horrific crash, McGraw had already popped out and sprung to his feet. That grizzled son of a bitch was dusting himself off. There wasn’t a scratch on him. All we could do was stare at him. McGraw broke the silence.
“Well, pay up,” he said to Sullivan and Meriwiskey as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Sullivan’s response was just as unexpected. “Us pay up? I think you should pay up.”
“What? I just sat in the outhouse and even went the extra mile for you.”
“No,” said Sullivan, his eye still red with flames. “Your little stunt didn’t work.”
“Yeah, you think it was cute nudging that outhouse over the edge? We’re onto you, right Billy?” Meriwiskey didn’t answer. “I said RIGHT Billy?” This time Meriwiskey nodded his head in agreement. “The bet was that you weren’t afraid of widders and you pushed that outhouse over the edge so you could avoid ‘em.”
“Avoid ‘em? Are you insane? I sat right in there with ‘em. Now I’m gonna say this real simple for you, pay up right now.” Well, old Captain Jack Sullivan didn’t appreciate being addressed that way, and he sure didn’t settle arguments the same way as McGraw. And I said he was dangerous cause at that moment, I saw the little flame in his eyes rage into an inferno, and before anyone could budge he’d pulled out his blade and run it through McGraw clear to his heart.
“Or what?” Sullivan said after he’d done the deed and emptied McGraw’s pockets. He flashed his blade at us before he went charging off into the bush. Meriwiskey gave us a sheepish look and followed Sullivan into the woods.
And that was it.
TO BE CONTINUED
Come back next Thursday for Black Yarn part 7/10 – “HONUS”