Fiction contest judge Michael Croley writes of Anthony Otten's work:
With an aching, reflective voice, the author recounts the fraught but loving relationship between father and son in the midst of a strike that stresses a town and its families. The story’s ruminative tone and sharp, spare prose reflect both a time and place as well as an ideal about working class families and the generation that will leave behind their blue collars for white ones that left me gutted at story’s end.
Rivertown by Anthony Otten
Winner, 2019 Fiction Contest
When my father, Roy Reese, became president of the Teamsters local, we weren’t hearing anything about a strike. That came later, and it wasn’t Dad’s fault. He had a seventh-grade education and all the leadership acumen you could get from herding the cows on his parents’ farm. He’d brought himself and Mom to the city after the farm was sold, one mortgage traded for another. The kids they planned would go to school outside the fallow season, October through March, and not bite their fingernails raw when the almanac predicted a drought. In the morning he drove to the plant with a wax-paper lunch and a stare of unfading bewilderment at the suicidal driving practices of city commuters. Around suppertime he came back with red eyes and complaints and sometimes, not frequently enough, money, and he’d fall on his meager throne at the table to devour a hill of meat and starch. Something dead, something white, he told Mom. That meant meatloaf or hamburger, with potatoes. It was the only inventive phrase I ever heard from his mouth, which told me Paw or some uncle of his had originated it. Mom tried to substitute cauliflower for the mash once, fulfilling the white part, and he looked at her like he was thinking about pawning his wedding ring.
We lived on the west side. The wet side: Rivertown. That was where you found the booze and the rusting bridge that sluiced it over the canal and into the countryside, unraveling to the south like a beer stain down a tablecloth. Rivertown was the brewery and the guys that drove for it. There was the second-generation Ellis Island crowd—Italians, Germans, Irish. A scattering of blacks and Mexicans who always came to the local’s meetings but never spoke. And dislocated mountain folks like us, who didn’t seem to belong anywhere anymore.
On the east side was what we called Milktown. The folks there didn’t call it anything except the place where good people live. They were WASPs with a burning dislike for liquor but a Pharisee’s thirst for profit. Which is why the smartest of them had bought a stake in the Faberstohl Brewing Company. If the reprobates down in the west side were going to rot out their livers, they figured, why can’t we reap a few more bucks on our way to heaven?
Dad had been elected VP of the local because, according to him, the job had no duties and the guys trusted him. Especially they trusted him not to embarrass them out of a cost-of-living raise with some stupid jibe in an arbitration hearing. Then at the end of summer Pete O’Shea, the president, took his pension early and retired. Supposedly—Dad told us in one of his vein-busting ephemeral rages, his fifty-cent furies—Pete wanted to care for his wife full-time because her cancer had returned. “Even though,” he said, beating his palm on a defenseless newspaper splayed on the counter, “she’s still doing their groceries. And going to the book club. And hasn’t lost a pound off her big rear end. Best-looking lady I ever seen that’ll be dead in two weeks, by his telling!”
Just coincidentally the cancer had reappeared about a month before the old contract was up in October. Dad would have to lead the local’s negotiations with the brewery’s owner, Bob Kirkwood. A man with more poetry in his childhood would have compared it to dancing with a rattlesnake in his arms, like the wrong kind of Pentecostals do.
I didn’t know how much of my hide I’d be lending to the conflict until I got home at six o’clock on the Friday before Labor Day and found Dad next to my bedroom door. He was still in his chambray shirt from work and he wore an odd look like a mixture of haughtiness and shame and determination. Like he was steeling his skin for a doctor’s needle.
“What’s going on?”
“Well, listen, Mickey, I got to give this speech on Monday, seeing as how I’m president.”
The local’s Labor Day picnic. I leaned on the door. “Okay. What’re you gonna say?”
“I think…” He blustered past me into my room and grabbed up some sheets he’d already laid on my desk, torn from Mom’s legal pad. “I couldn’t really…look, you’re the writer in this house, so I’m gonna have you do it. Don’t have to be tonight. Just this weekend sometime.”
He spoke in a stammering but insistent voice, a weak imitation of the tone he used for actual commands, and then stared at me to see if I’d say yes.
“Sure,” I said. “How long’s it got to be?”
“About five minutes, I’d say. Nothing too complicated. Just, you know, we’ve got the contract coming, and we’ll get through it okay. And if we don’t we’ll steal old Bob’s tires off his Thunderbird.” He chuckled uneasily. “Don’t figure you ought to say nothing like that.”
“Are some of the guys talking that way?”
“They will. They always do. But they ain’t president this year.” He shifted, eager to escape. I let him dodge around me. “Thanks, Mick. I know you’ll set me up good.”
I went to my desk beside the window, which showed me the cindery baseball lot crammed next to our house and, distantly, the lazy glisten of the river. With one antsy finger I poked apart the sheets where he’d scribbled his ideas in a frustrated slant. The lines were a minefield of bad conjugations and misspellings, smudged near the end like smoke on a windshield, a gradual dissolution toward anger. I was moved with a self-conscious pity, and my own pride at having him rely on me. I was my parents’ only kid, born before my mother had suffered something that she circuitously called “problems.” And a son too skinny to lift a tire and too clumsy to change his own oil hadn’t been my dad’s expectation. Yet I was the editor of the school paper, whose first fall edition had kept me back at William Howard Taft that afternoon, in the production room by the cafeteria, where I cranked out each damp copy from the ditto and became vaguely giddy from the alcoholic scent. I could write this speech. I did write it, that exact night, three hundred seconds’ worth of prose, equally defiant and humble ahead of the approaching talks with management. I typed it on my mother’s Royal and presented it to Dad in one of the envelopes Mom mailed our bills in. He read it on the sofa while his Philco radio screeched out the numbers from the stock market close. He frowned.
“Hmm. Don’t have much fight in it.”
“What, you want it to be ‘give me sick leave or give me death’?”
“No. It’s just the hippie stuff that…I know you’re partial to it, but I ain’t about to lead some march in Alabama.”
“Then why don’t you just write it?”
“I can’t,” he said. The plainness of that statement shut my mouth for me. “But I guess it’ll do for a picnic.”
Stung, I wanted to rip the pages from him. “If they put out the food first nobody’ll even be listening to you,” I said, when I was back at my desk and he couldn’t hear me. I was angrier at my own flowery pen than at him. At that age I was still intoxicated with Dr. King’s sonorous speeches, barely a year removed from his killing at the Lorraine Motel, and I wanted to slap anybody across the mouth who didn’t think peace was the only route to justice. As much as that, I wanted to repay my dad now for all the clunks and squeaks I knew he’d be checking when I finally bought a Packard from the west side’s only used-car lot.
Apparently the barbecue was indeed served before Dad’s spiel, and so my words, uttered through him, were received about as blandly as a weather forecast. I didn’t go, figuring some vigilant soul would detect the truth in my expression—would know that Roy Reese, acting president, could hardly write out his own grocery list. Somebody with some pull, however, must have been listening, because Dad came home nervously animated on Tuesday night. The opinion editor at the local Sunday weekly wanted to print his speech in the next edition. Even though nobody would know it was mine, I hugged him. “It’s real good you didn’t say nothing about nabbing those tires,” he said, his only praise. Mom pinched her eyes at us over her coffee.
My first publication in another man’s newsprint may have satisfied my vanity, but it cost the Teamsters the smooth negotiation that must have seemed so likely in the picnic sunshine. Bob Kirkwood saw the editorial and resolved to starve the union rather than bargain with it. He heard something mocking in those words when they weren’t filtered through the halting, half-apologetic voice Dad employed for formal speaking, like when he was a deacon at Marble Baptist. I figure Kirkwood loathed hearing MLK aimed against him as much as he loved hearing “God Bless America” sung at a parade, but perhaps he was only searching for the reason he needed to get aggressive. And I supplied it. A week before the contract was up, he demanded a three-year freeze on cost-of-living adjustments, part-time hours for the first year of any new hire, no vacations taken except in the winter…We were “ungrateful, spoiled,” he wrote back in a letter to the editor. “Kissing cousins to commies and mobsters,” he said. He liked his alliteration.
“Dad reluctantly inquired with the national headquarters about a strike. He could’ve resigned from being president. Still could’ve been a driver. Let some hotshot with his GED fumble on the phone with Hoffa’s boys.
The first of October receded behind us. No ink on a contract. With Kirkwood pulling up his drawbridge and loading his cannons, and the guys stirring over fears about their checks and what’s the use of a union that takes your dues and don’t fight, Dad reluctantly inquired with the national headquarters about a strike. He could’ve resigned from being president. Still could’ve been a driver. Let some hotshot with his GED fumble on the phone with Hoffa’s boys. But he wasn’t going to be the tenderfoot who abandoned the battle just before Christmas. On a Sunday afternoon he had me reading the old contract with him in the kitchen when Pete O’Shea called and told him Kirkwood was sniffing around for scabs—strikebreakers who’d cross a picket line. He expected the union to strike and had decided to preempt us. When Dad banged the phone back in the cradle his face was a livid splotch like some caricature of rage from the funny papers. “I’ll give him just what he wants,” he yelled at Mom and me, terrified. “I’ll give it to him even sooner than he wants it.” He called the national. On Monday morning the local met for a hasty vote, which was unanimous, and the strike was happening.
A dozen of my classmates and I cut our shifts at our after-school jobs, or in the purgatory of Taft’s detention hall, to go see the picketing. Most of us had dads that drove for Faberstohl or worked at the pizzerias and spirits shops that’d be hurting from the strike. We were sure to be there at five when Kirkwood’s scabs came out of the plant. I pictured them as fulfilling their name, dark-faced scuttling guys with crusty skin and curved backs. They didn’t look too different from our fathers, maybe a little underfed, but furtive, too, springy in the feet, and we poured invectives on them like they were the visitors at a home game. I didn’t know it until we left, but some idiot had deduced which unfamiliar cars belonged to the scabs and had painted some pretty unambiguous phallic references on a few driver side doors. I laughed, though I wasn’t proud; I ran, though I wasn’t ashamed.
Dad saw me there. He had his belt lying on his chair like a sleeping cobra when I walked in. He didn’t use it—I was a little old to get a whupping, even if I was still scrawny—but he wanted me to turn clammy in the stomach for a second, to know he was serious. “You little screw-up, we’re on strike pay from the Teamsters now,” he growled, while Mom floated behind his chair like the ghost of conscience in a king’s portrait. “We can live on it but we got to keep ourselves straight. You and those kids…you don’t know…I been through a strike before, and you can’t win a thing like this if you’re not—”
His tongue struggled to cooperate with his brain. “Sounds like you need a speechwriter,” I said. I was that kind of smart aleck. Like a Dick Gregory sort of troublemaker, or I hoped. He launched out of his seat and raised the belt, age and inhibitions forgotten, and I dashed for the refuge of my bedroom.
Eventually both of our skulls cooled, though Dad’s fit in the living room was worth more than the fifty-centers I was used to. I heard him knock over a lamp, then set it upright again without apologizing. I knew Mom was probably reviewing her checkbook, irritated but not fearful. She could ignore an outburst from him as if it were a whim of nature, hail thundering against the aluminum siding.
Some other kid in town—or maybe man, I can’t really say—must have lacked for a lamp to absorb his fury that night. And he found a body to do it for him.
Dougie Kirkwood was Bob’s oldest son, a senior at St. Gertrude’s, meek and stubby and already showing some silver around his temple, an inconvenience for a father obsessed with facades. Nobody I knew had ever abused Dougie as an effigy for his dad’s politics. But just before eleven on that Monday evening, a Taft sophomore who worked at the Pins & Ammo Bowling Alley was lugging the trash to the dumpster and found Dougie moaning in a puddle of himself under a streetlight. He was puffed yellow and red with bruises, and the hospital, when they got him there, feared he could be deaf in one ear.
My heart cramped when I heard it. I was sorry for Dougie. That nobody had much noticed him until they had made his pain their purpose. But I was more scared for Dad. He paced at the telephone stand with the cord wrapped around him like black ivy, heedless of his own volume, an imminent stroke painted across his features. “It ain’t any of my guys in the local done it, I can tell you,” he argued into the receiver’s tiny holes. “And it ain’t one of their kids, if they was raised decent. Course maybe they wasn’t. Maybe I don’t know them too good. But, Pete, everybody’s taking the floor out from under me. How the hell am I supposed to lead when they do what they want anyway? This ain’t the decent way to…yeah, you want to be tough, but this…he’s on a machine now, is what I heard. St. Luke’s.”
Pete O’Shea, president emeritus, playing cardinal to the king again. What use was steering advice from a captain who’d jumped in the lifeboat? I guess he was the only fellow Dad knew without some interest meshed into the bargaining. He could be honest; he didn’t have to care anymore. When Dad was done with him, he turned to me with a voice that had withered to a mote of his usual baritone.
“Mickey, I need that pen of yours again. I reckon we ought to put something in the paper. Nothing, nothing really—”
“Crazy?” I said. “But you want to say you’re torn up about Dougie. Without making like the union had to do with it.”
“And no pussyfooting around it.”
“Yeah. Lay into the punk that mugged him. Real Teamsters don’t act like that.”
“That might be going a little far,” he said. “But I guess you got it, mostly.”
I roughed out a draft and reworked it until my wrists ached from their hawklike poise over the keys. I said everything Dad would mean, no embellishments, just him—the him he would have been with a library card and a couple years to use it before Paw Reese snatched him out of the schoolhouse. Yet the marchers’ drumbeat still hid beneath the skin of the words. I hoped they would be my absolution. I handed it to him at breakfast. He folded it into his breast pocket without reading and nodded his dour thanks, his jaw shut on a spoonful of Mom’s gravy. I didn’t even learn where he took the letter until it was in the city’s daily paper, the one publication ubiquitous in Rivertown and Milktown, on the sixth morning of the strike. It had a hot title, not one I’d supplied: UNION LEADER CALLS FOR PEACE, ACCOUNTABILITY AMID TENSION. Dad’s gritty half-smile adorned it. He was wearing the same red-checked shirt he’d had on when I gave him the letter; some fiend with a camera had backed him against the wall when he’d dropped by the daily’s office.
Most of the city, whatever its schooling or the weight of its pocketbook, was reading Dad’s words over its coffee. My brain plucked and fretted at every remembered comma, and I missed my name being called in homeroom. I didn’t want to be at Taft, anyway. I wanted to see if anything had shifted in the picket line or in Kirkwood’s gut. So at lunch I did what I’d never done, what no aspiring scholarship kid from Rivertown ever does if he wants to avoid his mother beating him with a broomstick: I cut school for the afternoon and ran down to Foltz Street to watch the strike. Even with my conscience inflamed, Dad’s presence drew me there. The brewery’s stacks rose into the sky like partially finished cigars, and there below were the guys dressed for work and brandishing their homemade signs. The local’s treasurer bellowed their demands through a bullhorn—Barney Guntzelman, a ruddy German almost too big for his truck, round and solid as a beer can. Dad stood at the opposite flank, content to let Barney dominate the air. He seemed more wary of the cars honking to convey their approval or warn the men back from the street. I loitered in the shadow of a telephone pole by Trapuzzano’s, the Italian grocery. Whenever the wind awoke and reeled past me, laden with paper cups and gum wrappers, I missed the jacket I’d had to leave in my locker. Somehow the scene had the jovial atmosphere of a carnival, the drivers shouting up at Kirkwood’s empty window with the gusto of Huns at the gates of Rome.
Then trucks began oozing back into the brewery’s lot and the whistle sounded for the lunch hour. Twelve-thirty. The fizz of muttered words ceased among the strikers as they observed their substitutes creeping into the plant’s unfenced yard with their brown sack lunches. I wondered if Kirkwood was leering down from his office, relishing the squirms; he didn’t let any of the drivers eat in the facility, only on the benches outside or in their cabs. I tried to envision his son wheezing in a bed, to keep from hating him.
Somebody in the picket line called, “Hey, man! You like the inside of my truck? Cozy enough for you?”
No answer arose from the swiftly chewing, down-faced men across the street. The air shivered with resentment. The illusion of security, of everything resolving in inevitable happiness, had vanished. The intruders facing them were eating their bread. “Ain’t even polite enough to talk back,” somebody else said, and another: “Damn snobs, the whole bunch. Taking after Bob.” I looked at Dad. He was glowering at his own side, not speaking, spine straight with what I could tell was fear.
I didn’t see the provocation. It could have been a mistimed glance, an unconcealed sneer, a hand covering a whispered remark. But I couldn’t miss it when it occurred. Two younger men approached in the street, shoving back their sleeves, fisting their hands and cursing, their pupils swelled so dark their eyes were black. Their respective sides marched a few yards behind them, strikers and strikebreakers, two avalanches crashing toward the same valley. The scabs were leaner guys than even I’d admitted. Rawboned, hungry, like they’d say yes before they heard what the job was. In that instant I saw my father race to the spot where the two bulls were converging. He separated them with his body. The two might have circled around him except that he faced his back toward the brewery, the scab side, and confronted his own men.
“You want to lose?” he said, not shouting, though his voice stalled them. “You want to take it out on guys making half what you do? We should be handing out our literature to them.”
He said it lit-uh-cher. The driver from Dad’s side sliced his hand in the air and said something pithy. “Your mother’s teaching grade school, Costello,” Dad said. “Ain’t you ever listened to her?”
There was laughter, brief and taut as lightning. “We won’t beat him with a fight,” Dad went on, spiking a glance up at Kirkwood’s office. “You know what I said in the paper. You don’t win if you turn into what you’re afraid of. You want to do that, fire me. If you want to win, get back on the sidewalk.”
While he spoke, the men on the brewery side were retreating back to their lunches, squatting together near their trucks, not talking, primed for flight up the street or into the loading bay. Yet it was then I saw something more welcome, more gratifying, than either Dougie Kirkwood’s release from the hospital or his father’s eventual, belabored concession to a new contract—I saw the members of the local return to their line. Perhaps grudgingly, so Dad would know he couldn’t always boss them. But they went. Barney Guntzelman dropped his bullhorn and, as if cued by that whistle, sat on the curb to eat the sandwich he’d brought in a pail. Dad had said what they had to hear, anyway. He said what I’d written, what we’d written. I clutched the telephone pole like I was hanging from the mast of a ship, stupefied. I watched him visit down the line, swap nods and shoulder-slaps. There were sighs and headshakes that seemed mystified at the wrath that had taken the men in its hands. That had taken all of them but him. I watched my father work.