The Alex Adams award was established in 2007 in memory of its namesake, Jay Alexander Adams. It provides financial support to undergraduates who elect to spend two months of their summer producing an original work of art. Halcyon Person ’10 was one of the two recipients chosen last spring. What follows are excerpts from her project, for which she spent the summer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, conducting interviews with members of her father’s and grandfather’s generation who had worked at the since closed Jones & Laughlin Steel Mill.
They had an old joke in By-Products. Well, at least, that’s where Don heard it first. It goes that one day, a security guard at the east entrance sees a new employee walking out of the mill with a wheelbarrow covered in burlap cloth. The guard’s immediately suspicious, he knows that the guy is new, he doesn’t look trustworthy. So the guard checks the cart real careful, looks under the cloth, on the belly of the thing, to make sure the guy’s not hiding any tools, or any cables or metal that he could sell for scrap later. He can’t find a thing, though, and he finally has to let the guy go; there’s no reason to hold him. The next day the same thing happens. The guy comes out with his wheelbarrow and the guard searches him high and low, checks every inch of the cart, but he can’t find a damn thing. It’s just an empty wheelbarrow. So this goes on for weeks and weeks, every day the guard checks the guy, gives him a hard time, holds up the whole security line. He just doesn’t trust him. Until one day, weeks after that first time, the guard finally sighs and says, OK man, you got me. You got me fair and square. I know, I’m positive that you’ve been stealing from the plant, but you’re too good and I can’t find a thing on you. I’ve looked everyday for weeks, and if I can’t get you by now, you deserve to keep whatever it is you’ve been stealing. So I promise I won’t give you a hard time anymore, but I just have to know. What have you been stealing? And the guy, he smiles and pats the guard on the back. He chuckles and then says, wheelbarrows, of course.
Don had heard that one about a million times. He’d even used it a couple of times himself. And when he heard it, like all the other men, he nodded and grinned and pretended to be surprised when the punch line came, laughing and adding his own bit. Now that’s a plan, smart fella, who’d need a hundred wheelbarrows anyhow? It was ritual, and he liked it. Like saying the Lord’s Prayer. And everyone fell in line to hear it spoken. Some jokes were like that. A song that everyone knew by heart.
He was biting into an egg salad sandwich when they told the story. It was July, the hottest days of the year in Pittsburgh, and Martha had made egg salad, of all things. It was slick and warm, and each bite sat like concrete in his stomach. Pete sat down at the lunch table with a grin on his face.
Pete said that some guy in the wire mill walked out at the end of his shift, sweating bullets he said, but Don didn’t know what that could mean. Probably that he looked nervous, suspicious, but everyone was sweating, the newspaper said it was over one hundred degrees and the heat wouldn’t break until the end of the week. The guy walked past two guards before he dropped to his knees, falling like bricks to the pavement. He scratched his forehead on the hot black asphalt. Blood streamed from his cheek onto the ground. He sputtered like an old engine, and then screamed out into the humid air.
When the medics arrived they pulled off his shirt to resuscitate him and found twelve pounds of copper wire wrapped around his chest. He’d almost killed himself. The heat of it all under his bulky coat. Pete said it electrocuted him, but some of the other guys didn’t think that was true. Anyway, it was the heat, it clung to him and he’d almost killed himself for some copper wire.
Don threw his egg salad sandwich in the trash. He had to wonder how bad it was that a guy would think of doing that. How bad it was that they’d all sunk to that.
When the mill closed, Greenhill got a lot of them. Men who couldn’t take it, couldn’t shake the bitterness of it all. One day, you walk into work and there’s a letter with your name typed plainly on the front, and to put it simply, the letter says that you should pack up your locker, head on out at the end of your shift, and talk to your Union Rep about when you can start getting an unemployment check. Ask when the food bank opens every morning, and what’ll happen if your kid gets sick, a weak cough stirring the night and hot pink cheeks pulsing with feverish blood.
Ray McCoy worked in the Blooming Mill, where they rolled ingots into hard gray bars of steel. It was early November, and jack-o-lanterns drooped from front porches—at least the ones that had been spared from the baseball bats of vicious teenagers. Ray took his letter and his last paycheck silently. He spent most of the night sitting on a barstool with half his shift. They bought rounds with their last paychecks, letting the whiskey sit in their mouths and burn their tongues.
Ray spent a few months doing the things the Union told him to do. He stood in lines, he filled out forms. He wrote a letter to Ronald Reagan. He even drove out to Ohio to try and find work making brick, but by then all the jobs were gone.
He woke early one morning after about three months had gone by. His face was unshaven, listless in the dawn light. He stepped out of his bedroom quietly, in his boxers and a thin tee shirt, trying not to wake the sleeping house. After slipping on his work boots and grabbing his keys from the kitchen table he stepped outside and lit a cigarette. It had just snowed, and he was cold in only his underwear. Goosebumps rushed in waves across his bare skin, and he rubbed his arms and blew hot wet breath into his hands. Finally he opened the door of his car and slipped inside, closing it softly behind him. He sat in his car for a long time, staring at the dashboard and clenching and releasing his hands on the leather steering wheel. He turned his key in the ignition, pulled out of the driveway, and moved slowly, methodically down Seventh Street towards Route 60.
He reached the Fort Pitt Tunnel in just under an hour, driving slowly with the windows open, despite the mid-winter cold. His left arm hung limp out the window. When he got to the tunnel he slowed even more, his big Ford hovering in the middle lane as cars passed him with deliberate speed. He looked at the statuesque mountain, cut to its knees by men who had drilled straight through it, leaving two gaping holes, gashes to the granite that would never heal. He pushed the toe of his boot into the gas pedal and the car careened forwards, towards the wall of concrete that divided the ingoing and outgoing tunnels.
A woman watching in her blue sedan said his Ford poured into the cement wall like a diver.
When Ray woke up he was at Greenhill Asylum. He was heavily drugged but he could remember the shadows of people moving across his thin line of vision. He heard a doctor’s low voice, explaining in technical terms that he was lucky to be alive. He saw the bright greens and reds of a grocery store poinsettia sitting on a chair near the door.
A few months later he was up and shuffling around the halls, a crushed tin can of the man he once was, hunched over and guarded. He spent most of his time sitting in front of a grainy television set, tuned to daytime soap operas or old black and white movies. He played with the belt of a cotton blue robe, staring past the T.V.’s antenna at the floral wallpaper.
Greenhill Manor closed in 1992 after the owner, Dr. Marlon Branch, cited chapter 11 and peeled out of the court parking lot in a light blue Beamer with new license plates. In less than a week they had evacuated, and the long halls of beige tile and floral wallpaper were empty, free from the rambling bodies of the men and women who seemed like they were only half there, anyway. They sold the stretchers and the mattresses, and some of the nurses even unscrewed light bulbs from their sockets and tucked bedding into their coats as they left, getting their last two weeks’ pay however they could. For a while they moved the patients around to different hospitals, trying to find them beds as far away as Somerset County, wherever there was room. The asylum held close to five hundred, and before long there were psych cases sharing sanitized hospital rooms with kidney transplants and cracked skulls. Some of them screamed in their sleep, some were bound to their beds by broad leather straps. But most idled on as they had for an eternity, flipping mindlessly from one channel to the next on televisions that hung above their beds.
It took a long while before realtors could sell off the property of Greenhill. It seemed surprising; the land was prime real estate at the peak of an imposing hill overlooking all of Sewickley. It peered down on Route 60, and it could be seen from every angle as one great summit. But still, nobody showed interest in the land for years, because legends clung to it, reminiscent of B-grade horror films. It seemed like everyone knew a story, a terror of electroshocks, violent rage, secret burials that Dr. Branch had subjected his patients to. Even when Greenhill Manor had been a legitimate asylum people treated the place like a haunted mansion, and the building seemed to conform to its reputation, looking grayer, darker, more crooked and sinister with each passing day. Cursed, they said, like every soul who walked through its sliding glass doors.
In 1999 they sold it, building and all, to Wal-Mart. The super store put up chain-link fencing and plastered huge colored signs to each pole, advertising the renovations and the new and improved shopping center. They brought in bright yellow bulldozers and cranes. They razed Greenhill Manor to its cement foundation.
The first landslide killed two men. It looked like the entire earth was moving, sliding its way down to safer territory. If it wasn’t for the sound, like everything collapsing into itself all at once, it would have seemed almost graceful, like a well-choreographed dance. A dance where everyone knows their steps, everyone moves at the same precise moment with a ballerina’s grace.
But Wal-Mart was nothing if not persistent. They shut down construction for a week, and started hanging an American flag at half-mast from the top of an unused crane. There were three more landslides, disasters that covered all four lanes of Route 60, blocking the road for miles, before they finally gave up and called it quits. Three more people died, and about a dozen ended up in crowded rooms, holding a metal fork with crooked tines and dabbing at their soft and pulpy hospital food.
Dennis kept a Bible with a worn leather cover in the top shelf of his locker in the men’s room. Inside the front cover was a family tree that he had sketched over the years, marriages and newborns, dates and blessings for new happiness. In it, too, was a thin strip of deep red silk with a tassel on its end, a bookmark he used to keep his place. During his lunch hour he sat on a metal bench outside and thumbed through its pages. Men who watched him said he looked like he was reading Braille. His thumb touched every line of every verse and he mouthed each word, his grizzled chin bobbing up and down to the rhythm of it. Occasionally he needed to push his wire frames back up to the bridge of his bulbous nose.
When he wasn’t reading he was preaching, putting his own spin on the words he read day in and day out, pontificating to anyone who’d give him an ear. Sometimes even when they didn’t. Whenever a new man would join the crew Dennis would pull him aside at the first break. He’d bring you close to him, your chests almost touching, and then earnestly remove his hardhat and goggles. He’d ask, his voice cracking with the weight of it all, whether Jesus was your personal savior. Whether you’d accepted the Lord into your life. Most men shook their heads sheepishly, rubbed the backs of their necks and tried to maneuver themselves out of the conversation. Dennis had a way of cornering people, his old Bible tucked in the crook of his arm.
“This place is a hell on earth, men!” Dennis talked a mile a minute when he saw his chance. He was constantly pushing his glasses to the bridge of his nose and opening his Bible to any old page, holding it before him, treating his hands like a makeshift altar. And the picnic bench was his makeshift soapbox, his boots stomping for emphasis on its slats. “Things haven’t been the same since the war. There’s a lack of morals, a lack of decency, and we’re all getting dragged down into the fiery furnaces of it all.” Men couldn’t help but listen; he had so much passion in his voice. “And who’s to blame? Who’s behind it all? It’s these women. Look around you. Just look. We have women with no husbands and three children. No husband but three children. What can that possibly mean?”
By that, Dennis meant the women’s trailer. When they finally built the women’s bathroom in a double-wide on stilts outside the main offices, it was long overdue. The women had been petitioning for what seemed like years for a place where they could change, shower in peace. But before long it became a place where married men could go during the lunch break. Before long, guards were catching men and women tangled in the stalls. Before long, scenes of men with pants crumpled at the ankles and women straddling toilet seats became common, and before long, people knew not to go in there unless they knew what they were looking for. People knew to ignore it, let it lie as an outland territory, wild and unkempt.
Not long after that things changed again. It wasn’t just couples groping among the faucets and soap dispensers, their pants and sighs embarrassingly loud through the thin walls. Women would up and quit all of a sudden. Women ran from the trailer, the buttons of their blouses ripped off and their hair wild and unkempt. Women screamed, their voices shattering the night.
“You ask me who we can blame? Who’s behind all this? It’s plain and simple!” Dennis swung his hands in the air, the pages of his Bible flapping in the breeze he made.
Dill came in most days for his shift looking like hell, grumbling under his breath and swearing at the whole lot of women, all of them bloodsuckers and whores. It was Bess, everyone assumed, keeping him up at night while they rowed and fought. Sometimes Dill had scratches on his arm, long, deep wounds that ran from his wrists up his forearms and under the sleeves of his shirts.
It wasn’t a secret that Dill slept with a lot of women. He had a gentle smile and natural charm, and what’s worse he knew it, so no girl was safe. Guys joked that new girls were his prey, and all he’d need was a week to whisper a few compliments in their ears and they’d melt into the back seat of his rundown sedan. His best move was putting a paper cup of water on a new secretary’s desk and plopping a cut carnation in it. The girls in the office fawned over the sharp edges of his jaw line and his soft blue eyes. And people said that’s how he got Bess in the first place, slipping his hand under the ruffles of her skirt and tickling the skin under the elastic of her pantyhose.
Years later Dill was that silver kind of handsome that tempted the young girls who typed pluckily outside the head offices. But Bess had grown round and blotchy in the years since they’d married. At the annual Management Picnic she usually wore big sunglasses and a straw hat that hid her pudgy face from the crowd. One summer they went at it in the line for hot dogs and hamburgers, and she stormed off, leaving him in the middle of Schenley Park without a ride home. He sulked in the parking lot, drinking a beer and tossing pennies at passing cars.
After a while she left him for good, screaming in the road outside their house and then pounding the hood of his sedan with her clenched fists. She took cartons of his cigarettes and crushed them on the lawn, and then hosed them down with ground water, got his clothes and his magazines and drowned them, too. And the next morning Dill was his usual mess, his shirt untucked and a limp, damp cigarette in his mouth. “She wants a divorce. She wants my money and my fucking heart in a jar.” He wasn’t so handsome anymore, his eyes were hard and small and when he talked, he gritted his teeth.
A few weeks later the lawyers had sat them both down and looked at the modest assets, decided how to divvy up Dill and Bess’ life into small, neat piles. His insurance, his pension, all the mill had promised him in case he died or lived long enough to retire. She got half of it all, and he felt like he was grinding his teeth down to the gums. She got half of it all.
And then, one day, he came into work with a grin on his face. He was clean-shaven and his clothes were brand new. He waved to his friends as he walked towards the showers, “Signing the papers tonight. I’m a free man again, boys!”
He sat in the locker room for a while, even after the shift started, and wrung his hands together, an anxious tick that made his skin raw. But he kept his grin. And Ike told it that when he came in to get Dill, yell at him for being late and just sitting there, that he’d slap that stupid grin off his face if he didn’t haul ass, Dill slapped his thighs and followed him out to the floor without a word.
Minutes later he jumped, falling like lead into the pit of the furnace, gone in an instant. No body, no bones. Just steel.
He thought that if he killed himself, she wouldn’t get a dime. There’s a J&L policy that suicides mean no insurance, no pension, you take your life, J&L doesn’t owe you a penny. He wanted to get her one last time. If their marriage was an epic war, he was stabbing her through the heart with a poison tipped sword before he collapsed to his knees in triumphant defeat. “I’m a free man again, boys!” ringing in everyone’s ears.
They ruled it an accident. She got all, not half, of his pension and his life insurance. She must have known what really happened, but every time she felt guilty about what he’d done and how he’d ruined himself, she thought about the smile he’d given her as she settled into her new desk, and the paper cup with the pink carnation she’d found next to her typewriter.