Five days before New Year’s 1993, John Boomer got a running start and leapt over the golden railing of the Seventh Street Bridge, one of three sister bridges along the Allegheny River. Above, the sky was spotless. Below, the green-brown water swept past, high from days of melting snow. It looked like a swan dive, I imagined, arms spread as he sailed, a perfect plunge into water, as if there were no desperation at all to the act, just movement and grace and a fluid finish.
“Turn it up, little sister,” my mother said, her strong voice lilting across the syllables.
I spun the dial. The DJ droned louder in the Eldorado, competing with the whoosh and clank of the Body Beautiful car wash surrounding us. It was the Number One, the Super Deluxe Wash and Wax, a serious six dollar affair.
“What’s he doing?” I asked. The leather squished as I shifted in my seat.
My mother’s eyes widened. We waited. We held our breath.
John Boomer left his rusty pick-up running on the bridge; someone had found his driver’s license and twelve dollars inside. A week later, two fishermen on a pontoon boat recovered his body three miles downriver. But we didn’t know that then. That day, we learned only that he did not surface after the jump.
“Change the station,” my mother said. A sudsy spray shot down onto the windshield, clouding our view of what was in front of us.
“Why’d he do that?” I asked.
She pressed one of the radio’s silver buttons, then the cigarette lighter. We moved through a tangle of long, red strips that looked like Raggedy Ann’s hair turned upside down.
“What time’s the concert?” my mother said. She loved hearing the details of sixth-grade chorus, especially the concert, which was three days away. And I was good for it, the details, if not for all that singing. It was a big thing for her that I was in the choir, because in high school she had been a sonorous alto, and because my sisters, older than me by eleven and fourteen years, had never shown any interest. For this reason, even though I was tone deaf, I was glad to do it.
“Seven o’clock. But we have to be there early.” I switched back to the original station and the conveyor lurched us forward. “Mom. Why’d that man jump off the bridge?”
“I was thinking we’ll put your hair in curlers, like we did for service on Christmas Eve.”
“Do you think he was running from something?”
“I don’t know, Hannah. How do the curlers sound?” We regained our mobility, and my mother shifted the car into drive. She lit her cigarette as we pulled into the bland daylight.
“I said I don’t know.” My mother flicked the radio off. She didn’t like tragedy in the car.
That evening, long after the sky had drained its color and my father got back from work, my parents argued quietly in the kitchen.
“So say no. Make a choice.”
“What’s the choice?” my father said. “This is the job.”
“And you’re okay hiding behind that? What if that was me on the picket line?”
“How many times are we going to do this same thing, Patty?” He sounded tired.
I paused the Punky Brewster rerun Lynny had taped for me. She was at her apartment in the city, and Cybil, who’d come home for Christmas break the week before, was skiing with her sorority sisters. I scooted on my elbows across the carpet, past the Christmas tree, to hear.
“This job puts food on your Pennsylvania House table and pays for those braces you insisted Hannah get.” My father’s chair scraped the tile as he backed up.
“Oh, because you’re the only one in this house who works?”
“Do you know what it’ll cost to start the ovens again if we let them stop running? The union’s going to ruin what’s left of that mill. No one’s forcing them to hold out—day and night we’ve been trying to make a deal.”
“Listen to you—‘we’!”
My father groaned. “I’m done apologizing for this.”
“When have you ever apologized for anything?” my mother said.
There was a pause, and in the silence I heard the electric hum of the new fridge snap on as someone yanked the door open. A loud grumble followed—the freezer dumping its ice cubes into the plastic bin. Then, the sound of a drawer sliding and plates clanking—my father making leftovers. On the television screen, the characters were frozen mid-conversation. I clicked off the TV; I’d seen enough to guess what happened next.
My mother had the presence that many tall, slender women have, whether they are beautiful or not, because though her features were striking, my mother was not really beautiful. Her laugh could disarm anyone, and she laughed so that her survival seemed to depend on it, so that her very life seemed held in those moments when her narrow shoulders curved in and her pale head fell forward.
At my parents’ alma mater in the Mon Valley, an hour south of the city, she taught history and was secretary of the union. My father was not a union man. He had been for many years, while he finished up night school and worked daylights at the Wheeling-Pittsburgh mill, but now he was mid-level management, a computer guy. When he got the promotion that moved him to a downtown office in the Steel Building, we left the Valley for the suburbs, so he could be closer to work. In traffic, though, it was still an hour-long drive each way. After the promotion, my father said he was getting a more forward-looking life, though this phrase was something my mother didn’t like, or didn’t agree with, because whenever he said this, she would angle her sharp chin and say, “You don’t have to put everyone else down because you’re moving up.”
At Monessen Senior High, they had not been sweethearts. She was president of the glee club; he was quarterback of the winningest team in school history. But their fathers worked at the same mill, though his was a foreman and hers was a general laborer and a quiet man whom I remember giving me quarters to play Pac-Man at Hills Department Store. My father asked my mother to the parties after commencement, and at first she told him no—something she would later smirk about, saying, “And I’ve always had a good first instinct.” But he had a trim waist and a strong jaw line, and my mother liked the way he kept his hands behind his back while he talked, as though he were holding something mysterious, something special. So she went. And by August, the air thick and heavy with the promise of change, they were both going west, to Colorado, their hopes sailing in my father’s sixty-two Nova and on his football scholarship.
There must be more to those early days, but my mother never said much about the past.
She did tell me this a few years ago: two years after they eloped, when they were living with her parents, just back from Colorado, where Lynny had been born and my father had blown out his knee—football was done forever, and they would have to ride another ticket to the top, he said—he took took her down to Nacaratto’s Buick and Pontiac on Third Street in Monessen.
Here, my mother tested out a Skylark and a Firebird, and finally a gold ragtop GTO. This was 1967, and that car was just a baby.
“We’ll take it,” my father told the salesmen.
“Nick, wait,” she whispered. She would only have had to lean into his ear because she was as tall as he. “Thirty-five hundred dollars?” They were both attending the local college, and money was scarce. But my father insisted that if she wanted it, she would have it.
So my mother got her first car—her best, too, she said—a snazzy convertible with black vinyl seating. She had never had something like that, something fabulous and all her own. By morning, when they brought the car back to the lot, my parents had put two hundred and nineteen miles on it.
My mother offered up this story with a dim smile, just like that. Like it was a thing that happened, and that was all.
The next night, I made rainbow-colored scorpions with my new Creepy Crawlers oven while I waited for my friend Jeanie to call. In the living room, my mother dismantled the Christmas tree. The twenty-four hour news channel played in the background, her substitute for the city papers, which hadn’t been printed in months. She raised the volume when the anchor mentioned the man who jumped off the bridge. He was a father of four, a third generation typesetter for the Pittsburgh Press. From my spot on the landing of the stairs, I strained to hear more, but my father, in the family room, turned up the game in response. Her TV got louder and so did his. After a list of crack arrests, the news moved on to the union unrest blanketing the city—the newspapers, department stores, and, most recently, the Clairton coke works, where my father would have to go in the event of a labor strike, to help keep the ovens running.
I was supposed to go across the street to Jeanie’s house, and I worried I wouldn’t hear the phone ring over the TVs. Instead, I didn’t hear my father start up the steps. He tripped on one of my uncooked molds, flipping it over onto the carpet.
“Hannah!” He struggled to regain his balance on the steps above me, his Bud bottle clanking the banister. “What’s this crap doing here?”
“Sorry. I didn’t see you.”
“What are you yelling for?” called my mother from the living room. She came into the foyer. “Maybe you should watch where you’re going?”
My father turned to me; his features were hard and foreign-looking. “When are you going to quit playing with toys?”
“Nice,” my mother said. She was at the foot of the stairs now. “Step on whoever’s in your way.”
“You always have to be so goddamn dramatic.”
“Maybe I should be like you instead. Not feel anything about anything.” My mother wanted things but she had her limits. They both did, sure, but hers were rigid and well-guarded, like borders between countries, and one thing was on one side and one thing was on the other, and you had to know that with her. For years now, my father had been with management in contract negotiations, but he’d never had to break a strike, and she wouldn’t—she couldn’t—pretend this wasn’t altogether different.
“Why don’t you just say what you mean, Patty?”
“You’ve forgotten who you are.”
“You’re shitting me?”
“You have,” she said.
My father laughed in a weird way. “This is such bull.”
“Yeah, it is,” she said.
Then he said, “I’ve been to a lawyer.”
“I went to see a lawyer.”
“You son of a bitch. You—”
“Quit it!” I said. “Just stop it!” I had never heard my mother swear before. A thing tightened in my chest.
I was still on the landing. After a moment, my father turned to finish climbing the steps and I grabbed his ankle, and then, as that slipped away, his pant leg. He struggled, saying, “Cut it out, Hannah! Let go!” but I held fast, until the fabric slipped from my fingers and I fell back and my elbow slammed the wall. I was always trying to fight the thing, whatever the thing might be at the time. I realize now that’s what both of them had been doing, probably for as long as either could remember—fighting and fighting a thing until it got all twisted up in their minds, so that they could get ahead, but also, so that they could never get quite far enough ahead.
“Hannah—” said my father, at the top of the stairs now, but my mother raised her hand and said, “You’ve done enough for one night,” and he turned and went into their bedroom and slammed the door behind him.
When the phone rang a few minutes later, my mother nodded at me in a way that told me I should still go to Jeanie’s, despite the Ziploc of ice on my elbow, but I picked up the receiver and said that I couldn’t spend the night after all, that I’d been goofing around in Cybil’s room and had broken a lamp, and that I was grounded.
I hung up the phone. My mother was looking at me. “Where did you learn to lie like that?” she asked, her voice curious, not angry. I shrugged. It didn’t feel like a lie, even though it obviously was. It had seemed like the right kind of story at the time.
My mother lit a cigarette and watched me. I couldn’t hear my father moving around upstairs, and that scared me—my face must have told her this because she muted the news and said, “I don’t want you to worry about the things you heard tonight, okay? It was stupid stuff, like when you and Jeanie argue.”
I nodded but otherwise didn’t move, and I didn’t say anything. For the first time, it seemed that I did have something to worry about, that in fact, there was a lot to worry about. I knew what it meant when someone called a lawyer; plenty of the kids at school had gone from living with both of their parents together to each one separately and only some of the time.
My mother laid her thin hands out on her legs, on the tops of her thighs, and sighed. “Don’t worry about any of it, little sister. You hear me? It’ll all be over in the morning.”
Twelve is the age when you start sleeping late on the weekends, and I did so the next morning. I slept a long and groggy sleep, and when I finally woke, it took me a while to get re-acquainted with the world.
I went downstairs and peeked in the garage: the Eldorado was gone from the first space, and the Olds was gone, too. It was strange to wake up in an empty house and find no note taped to the bathroom door, no bowl of cereal waiting on the kitchen table. Back upstairs, I took the longest shower of my life because no one was there to pound on the door and tell me not to use up all the hot water, and because I didn’t know what else to do. How do you to fill up the space between one life and the next?
I couldn’t find a matching pair of socks in my drawer, so once I had gotten on some jeans, I went to the basement and fished through the limp clothes my mother had left in the dryer the night before. When the garage door rumbled, I was still down there. My feet were frozen stiff, the socks balled in my fist, and I realized I must have been standing there a long time. After a minute, the door to the basement clicked closed, and one pair of shoes clapped up the steps—I could tell from the quickness of the step it was my mother.
Upstairs, she was crouched on the landing of the staircase. “Hi, honey,” she said when she saw me. “I didn’t see you down there. What were you doing?”
I held up the socks. There was a sick thing brewing in my belly. I already knew my father wasn’t there, but before I could ask where he was going to sleep and when I would see him and where we were going to live, my mother said, “Well,” and then didn’t seem to breathe for a long time. And I didn’t breathe either. She was looking at her hands, which had been scrubbing at the carpet a moment earlier and were now motionless and spread out in front of her, covering the spot where I sat the night before, the spot where the rainbow-colored scorpions had gotten flipped over. I looked at them, too, at her hands, and noticed the way the shiny skin folded over on itself, wrinkled. Her long back was arched and she was kneeling; she seemed scrunched up there on the narrow landing, like the space was too small to hold her. When she finally looked over at me and said, “Your father’s gone to the mill, down to the river,” there was something I didn’t recognize in her voice. Or rather, there was something missing—no high, no low, no familiar pitch of any kind. “The lockout starts at midnight,” she went on, “and he’ll have to sleep over there till it’s done. Then he’ll be home. I told him we’d pack a bag, you and me, bring it down before it gets dark, once I’ve gotten you something to eat. How’s that sound?”
“Fine,” I said. “Sounds good.”
She waved me toward her and kissed my head. Then she went back to the stain, which had lightened to green but never came out completely.
The next day was the chorus concert at the middle school. It was a flat, gray afternoon, and the sky looked tight and ungenerous. My mother forgot to curl my hair, but she drove us to the mall, and in Horne’s she told me to pick out a dress by myself, whatever I wanted. I went into the dressing room alone for the first time, which was strange and exhilarating, and I must have taken twelve dresses. Each time I came out, I tried to gauge the look on her face. There was a sailor’s dress, stiff navy blue fabric with a flat-front collar, which seemed like the sort of thing she had liked a hundred times before, an itchy one with pink and white taffeta ruffles sprouting from the waist, a striped one that hung to the floor. But she smiled at all of them in the same vague way.
Then I found the perfect dress—fat lavender flowers on a green background and long, loose sleeves—and my mother turned me around so I could look at myself in the mirror. “Don’t you look like a grown up,” she said, and I didn’t know if she liked the dress, but I smiled a big smile because I wanted to feel like a grown up and I wanted her to believe it, to really feel that I was, too.
I couldn’t bear the thought of the thick stockings she had shoved in her purse before we left the house, so I asked to get pantyhose, sheer ones, like she wore, because I just knew those terrible tights would ruin a nice thing like my dress. My mother tilted her head and didn’t say anything for a moment, but then we went to the Misses’ department for a pair of Hanes.
Outside, the big, early dark of winter had already taken hold of the sky. The heater blew cool air on my knees all the way to the school. Idling along the curb, a little ways from the front entrance, my mother said, “You look older already, I can tell.”
“You really think so?”
A boy walking by was singing, “You can’t touch this,” to no one that I could see. He didn’t look our way.
My mother nodded. Then she turned to me across the wide seat and said, “Hannah, we’re not going to tell Lynne or Cybil or your friends about all this talk these past few days, okay? Everything’s fine now. It’ll just be a thing between us. All right?”
It was hard to make out her face in the dark of the car, but I could see that she was looking at me, waiting for something, that she really seemed to be asking something of me.
“Okay. Sure,” I said.
“You’re a young lady now, little sister, look at you,” said my mother, straightening the dress on my shoulders. “And now we’ve got a secret to keep between you and me.”
“Is there anything you want to talk about? Anything you want—to ask me?”
There were lots of things I wanted to ask her. What she and my father had said to each other the day before, why they had decided not to get a divorce, whether he was what she thought he would be or what she dreamed about when she was young, like me. But even though I wanted to ask all these things and more, I didn’t say anything. I just shook my head because my mother didn’t like to talk about the past and it seemed that’s what those things were now, just the past.
She bundled me in my coat and leaned across me, shoved the door open into the blackness. I felt her warm breath on the side of my head, through the muss of my hair when she kissed me, and on the other side of me, the December air stung my leg. Then I was out on the sidewalk. Through the rolled-down window, my mother shivered, which I thought was strange since I was the one standing in the cold. “I’ll be up in just a minute,” she said. “Go steal the show.” Then she pulled the car off to the little hill that led down to the parking lot, and I walked toward the front of the school.
In a few minutes, the chorus teacher came to herd up the stragglers, and the brassy sounds of the sixth-grade band shot out from behind her into the winter night. We filed in and took our places on the stage, in front of bleachers filled with parents and siblings and neighbors. Then the overhead lights went out, and the multi-colored spotlights came on. The gym grew quiet, and we sang, “Pick, pick, pick, pick a bale of cotton,” and “Oh, we come on the Sloop John B, my grandfather and me, around Nassau town we did roam”—words that didn’t really mean anything except to make me think of the man on the bridge, John Boomer, the typesetter with four children who ran and leapt and sailed into the river forever. And even though they weren’t Christmas songs or holiday songs or songs that made much sense at all, there was a lot of applause before the room switched on again.
I couldn’t see my mother in the crowd during the performance, but when it was over, I found her standing by the gym’s side door under the red “Exit” sign. Her bony hands were still cold. She squeezed them around mine, saying, “You were fabulous!” the color filling up her fine cheeks. I asked what part she liked best, but she said she loved the whole program, and I understood that she hadn’t heard any of it at all. Which was just as well.
She talked like that the whole drive home, about how wonderful we were, how she imagined it was like seeing the stars perform on Broadway, even though she had never been there. And when we got to the house, she sat on the arm of the couch and told the same things to my father, who was in the family room in his slippers, eating the leftovers my mother had put in the fridge, just as he had all those nights before and as he did all those nights after. The duffel we’d taken to him the day before sat slumped on the hall floor, unopened. The union had agreed to a deal at the last minute; the lockout didn’t happen after all. And the next day, New Year’s Eve of 1992, the Press strike ended, too: the paper had been sold, and soon it would be history.
But before all that, before I went inside and sang without singing, before I lip-synced the lyrics of my first and last chorus concert—I leaned alone by the flag pole. Among the cars, I recognized the Eldorado by its rectangular taillights, glowing red in the black night. My mother must’ve had her foot on the brake. After a moment she opened the driver’s door but didn’t climb out. I could just make out her shape in the muddy glow of the overhead light; the crest of her curls, the steep slant of her shoulders, and her long fingers drawing her cigarette around and around, first in circles, then figure-eights, small ones and bigger ones, burning long graceful arcs into the darkness, the ashes, I imagined, falling onto the seat. I shivered. Without my opaque stockings, I felt unshielded from the bitter air, and for a moment I wished I hadn’t pressed for the Hanes. But I was too young then to accept things. To just know a thing for what it was and let it be. Everything seemed to have a meaning too big for it to hold, so that it spilled out into everything around it, like a glass of water overflowing onto the table and seeping onto the chair and from there to the floor, and going on like that forever. It all seemed to be something larger—not just the thing it was but maybe what it should have been or might have been, but that’s just how it seemed then, not really how it was. And it was probably because of my age and because the night was so dark and the hills looked so hollow out there around me, and because I didn’t know anything at all. I was just starting to learn.