Saturday, November 3, 2007

Squareface Part 3: The Supreme Experience

Tony Stayner took a last pull on the stub of his unfiltered Camel and then dropped the butt, crushing it under his heel in a practiced move. The nasty habit he had picked up in the Army had stayed with him and now he used it to set himself apart from the other miners. Most of them who smoked used cigars and pipes; cigarettes were a habit for the new generation.

Tony looked at his stubby fingers with black coal dust in the seams of his knuckles. He hadn’t been as careful scrubbing himself clean as his mother had been when he first started working in the mine as a boy. He was still a boy. Seventeen until August and that was still over four months away.

What would he do when he turned eighteen? Return to the Army? Not likely. He had found soldiering to be mostly boring, except for the horrible moments that he didn’t even let himself think about much. Stay in the mine? Sometimes he felt like he might be stuck here by plain inertia, but he wanted something more. Something…better.

Tony was not very tall and at seventeen he was as tall as he would get, but he was a large. His big hands and feet and head added an impression of size to his body. He had a wide, thick chest and a big neck. Some people would say that he had a wrestler’s body. To others he might evoke a bear.

Tony’s face was square-shaped and the nickname Squareface stuck to him in the mines. He had lots of wavy red hair. Waves of dark red hair; one on top of another, worked back from his broad square forehead and over the top of his head. He kept his hair short and very trim on the ears and neck, a habit he had picked up in the Army, but he liked to let it get long on top so people could see the waves.

Tony was still very shy around girls, but he was starting to be noticed by them and he was always glad for the attention. He moved with the physical grace and economy of a physically fit young man. Tony had done hard physical labor eight to ten hours a day since the age of twelve, except for his time in the Army. That was probably the best thing about the Army; at least the work wasn’t too hard.

Tony smiled at the thought, curling his lip in a way that always got him attention from girls. Then he thought of the work one moonless night on the Rio Grande and the smile froze on his face. Better not to think of some things, he thought.

He walked briskly as he always did. Tony always went around as if he had something important to do. Now he was walking to his parents’ house for dinner. Most nights he had dinner with his family, although now he had a room of his own – which he rented in a neighbor’s house.

Spring was coming on fast and the wan sun was still up as he walked home from work. He had gotten used to walking to and from work in the dark and the pale sunlight seemed like a luxury after the long days in the dark mine. The sun at the end of an early spring day in Central Illinois hardly seemed like a relative of the merciless sun Tony had found in Texas. There he went, thinking again.

His feet crunched on the damp gravel of the road. The early evening air felt clean and fresh in his lungs after the long day of breathing the close and redolent air of the mine. Tony walked alone. He was respected as a worker by his fellow miners, but Tony didn’t have many close friends these days. Not any more. The one man in the town of Westville that Tony felt close to was Erasmus Dobbins.

‘Ras and Tony had worked together as mule driver boys when they were just little children. They had grown up together and they both remembered Stani; other things not to think about. Friendships between white men and black men were discouraged in the mine and in the town, so it was difficult for Tony and ‘Ras to see much of each other.

So Tony walked alone through the ending day toward Mama’s supper. He could see the glow of light in his mother’s kitchen window as he neared the small house that the mining company rented to Tony’s father. He pulled his crumpled pack of Camels from his pocket and lit up, slowing his step so he could finish the smoke before he arrived.

The pungent smoke made his lungs ache a little and he could feel his head start to swim as the nicotine hit his blood stream. That small rush from the first puff was what Tony liked about smoking, but it seemed more elusive now after smoking for over a year. He took the second puff and held the smoke for a few seconds before exhaling it through his nose.

Tony had worked the timing out over the monotonous days since his return from Texas. He dropped the butt and crushed it under his heel without missing a step. The cigarette butt joined its fallen brothers in the gravel of the road in front of the Stayner home.

Tony entered the small house without knocking, it was still his home. Inside the house was filled with warm steam from dinner cooking and the fragrant cloud of Papa’s pipe. Tony’s father, still known by his Lithuanian name Stanisauskas, sat at the table reading a newspaper while he smoked.

Papa had grown old in the last year and he worked shorter days in the mine. He wasn’t able to keep up with the man-killing labor of ripping coal from the rock seams of Illinois, so now he worked in less physical support jobs that had him working earlier in the morning, but home in the evening.

Mama’s bulk filled the kitchen and her energy was mirrored by the young woman who bustled around her assisting in the preparation of a meal. Tony was amazed at the changes in his little sister Tillie. She wasn’t quite a woman yet, but the day was not far off. Pauline had married recently and now had her own miner and her own house to tend to.

“Good evening, Mama, Papa,” Tony said politely, wiping his shoes before entering the small house.

“Tony!” Tillie called, running to hug her brother. She had been very affectionate to Tony since his return. Sometimes she seemed to fear that Tony would go away again.

“Hello, Tony,” Papa said, setting aside his paper. Mama turned from her work and gave Tony a warm smile.

“Sit, sit,” Papa beckoned to an empty chair at the table.

Tony sat down and stretched his legs under the table. Sitting down after a long day of breaking and shoveling rocks always made Tony feel like he was a deflating balloon. He hadn’t noticed how tired his body was until he let it start to rest. He let his back slump against the hard wooden chair.

“Tired?” Papa asked, knowing very well what the answer was.

Tony nodded his head. Tillie set a glass of gira on the table in front of Tony and he thanked her with a smile. Tony enjoyed the caraway flavor of the soft drink made from slightly fermented rye bread.

Papa knew better than to ask about work. He and Tony had argued enough about the mine. He cleared his throat and ruffled his newspaper.

“It looks like it will be war,” Papa’s voice sounded as tired as Tony felt, but the word sent a thrill through Tony’s body.

“Did something happen?” Tony asked. He couldn’t quite keep the excitement out of his voice. Why did he feel that excitement after what he had seen and done in Texas? He didn’t know the answer, but he knew that he felt it. He also knew that if there was a war, then he would be back in the Army.

“President Wilson has armed the ships, even though Congress said no,” Papa’s voice seemed to give weight to each word, “And it looks as if the Tsar may not be able to hold on.”

“Can you imagine, Mama,” Papa addressed his wife with an expression of awe, “The Tsar may fall from power? Maybe we should go home…”

Mama shot her husband a glare that changed his expression from awe to anxiety.

“You’re talking crazy again,” Mama scolded, “This is our home.”

An expression of horror mixed with reverence passed over her face the way the shadow of the sun passes over a snow swept field in an afternoon.

“But the Tsar?” she rolled her eyes to heaven and mouthed the words of an old prayer. “Ach…” she scolded as she returned to her work.

“What’s the Tsar, Mama?” asked Tillie.

Tony smiled at her naiveté, but waited eagerly for an answer. He knew the Tsar was someone important back in the Old Country and now he had a role in the important events that were sweeping over Europe, but that was it.

Papa chuckled at his daughter’s words. Mama kept a geological silence.

“To think, these children have not had to fear and love the Tsar,” he shook his head at the wonders the world wrought, “You’re right, Mama, this is our home now.”

“The Tsar, my children,” Papa began with the voice he used to read stories to his family, “Is the ruler of the Russian empire. The father of the father of the Tsar’s grandfather conquered and enslaved our little homeland of Lithuania long before any of us were born.

“In the village where I was born we had a prayer that we liked to say for our beloved Tsar,” Papa smiled with nostalgia at the thought of the home of his youth and the far away life that he had led.

“We prayed solemnly,” He continued, “May God bless and keep the Tsar....” Papa paused for the length of two breaths, “…in Russia where he belongs.”

Papa laughed at his joke.

“Isn’t that right, Mama?” Papa’s voice was thick with levity and the heaviness of his talk about war had lifted a bit. Mama crossed herself and gave Tillie a job to do.

Papa picked his pipe up from the table, examined its bowl with care and then placed it in his mouth. Striking a match, he puffed at the pipe and took a long look at his son. He had seen the excitement in the boy’s face when he had spoken of war.

Papa puffed a miniature cloud front of tobacco smoke into existence around him while he gazed at the young man his son had become. He was proud of the boy who had already become a man. He worried about Tony, though. Tony wanted excitement and Stanisauskas knew that was a dangerous desire in a boy or a man.

“Why don’t you light one of your little cigarettes and join me?” Papa asked. He thought cigarettes were a bit effeminate, but he recognized that as a base prejudice.

Tony looked sheepishly in his mother’s direction before pulling the battered pack of camels from his pocket. He slipped a small white cigarette between his lips and then leaned in to the flaring match his father held for him.

The two men puffed in silence for a few minutes, feeling a bond of affection between them. No matter their differences they both knew the bond of one generation to another.

“I thought you had enough of war down south, Tony?”

Tony looked into his father’s eyes and saw an older, tired version of his own.

“That wasn’t war, Papa,” Tony inhaled smoke from his cigarette and let it out slowly through his nose, “That was stupidity.”

Tony’s word’s seemed to hang in the air between the men. Papa began to puff smoke rings in silent competition with his son.

“…And worse,” Tony finished.

Papa shook his head.

“Tony,” his voice was serious and heavy again, “Won’t you learn that war is only stupidity and worse? There is nothing else to it.”

“Probably, some day,” Tony said in all seriousness.

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