John A Maloney - writer, coder, fermentationist, intermittent musician, lover of maps and etymology. MFA at Columbia College Chicago. From time to time guilty of believing himself the actual reincarnation of the Roman Emperor Hadrian.
They were clipping right along making heady progress on the day’s digging when one of the workhorses fell into the mud and died and they were too tired to haul the thing out of the canalbed so they dug it into the canalbed. They decided this through words exchanged singly or not at all. They spaded through muckrock soil the three of them the team O’Connell Darby and Teague the Dirty Irish the Filthy Irish, spaded six feet below what was needed for the bed and they drug the horse’s body into it and the horse went down headfirst neck bones crunching. They lit cigarettes and stood over the crunched-up horse there spattered with muck. They looked at one another as conspirators, untrusting, redlit in the gray light of gray afternoon. The conspirators spaded muck into the hole and covered the horse, who’d been a good enough horse but was just a horse. A workhorse. They spaded him into the canalbed and then he was in there. They glanced at one another when they thought one another weren’t looking, they glanced sidelong out of their stubbled faces. They went back to carving the canalbed out of the earth a spadeful at a time, bodies lean and tightened, sometimes cigarettes, sometimes hard side glances. When the day’s digging was done they put up their shovels and got a day’s pay, went to the same tavern and sat separately along the bar in barquiet. Dipped whiskers into ale mugs. Coughed and spat. Trickled out with the twilight to three separate apartments alike in the same neighborhood, a place abutting the canal’s origin in the city of Chicago. Triply they came in to sharp words from wives, triply they gave sharp back, triply they tromped to the stove to warm their hands, tear a crust of bread or scoop a handful of boiled potato gone to gum. Triply they belched, and triply they looked in on children asleep or awake quivering with love-fear for their big dark quiet fathers. Triply they went down to dreams of peat fields aswirl with fog and untouched by progress.
They’d come from toiling on the other canal, the one called the Erie. They’d broken their backs and their workhorses’ backs on that canal while the ones doing the progressing kicked clods into their faces from up on the dry banks. They’d lived in apartments identical to these but for the names. They’d toiled for the same wages, toiled for the bellies of the same families, aside from the odd new baby, aside from the odd granddad or blue-faced tyke to mourn. They knew toil. They were toil. The rest was what happened. When the water rushed into the Erie the work dried up, just that simple. O’Connell got wind of the new canal and they all picked up stakes within the week. They moved herdlike from city to city, grazing upon toil where the toil could be found. In some places the grazing was better than others, though it was never good, only sometimes fair. The overseers might spit your way, would not allow you to look them in the eye, might call you anything from dirt to scum, but if they paid fair at the end of the afternoon it was nothing to think on. Wipe your hands on your trousers, pocket the pay, mumble a word and off you go to the remainder of the known, the next part of the script, in silence and sharpness and just enough to keep you braced against the anticipation of the next one. Darby’d broken from the pattern, called the boss a chump. The boss turned beetroot purple.
They had spaded the horse into the canalbed out of respect and exhaustion and they did not for a moment regret it on account of feelings of desecration and spiritual unrest and making the spirit’s passage into the next world more difficult. The horse’s wandering spirit did not once canter through the foggy peat fields of their tripled dreamscapes. The horse was dead, had once been alive and was dead and they thought as little of it as of the rest of the dead, their ever-mounting numbers.
This canal will be called the Illinois & Michigan and will be another feat of engineering to tally on progress’s side of the chalkboard. For fifty years trade comes and goes through the locks, enriching the city, enriching the region, enriching the nation. They dig it out from Chicago to Lockport to Joliet to Marseilles to Ottawa to LaSalle all the same, their view of the country the wall of earth before them, their duty to rend. O’Connell nearly lost his left arm to gangrene after a brush with the black powder. He spades with his right arm mainly and the withered left as support.
Three days after the horse Darby was bending over for a spade he’d dropped when he felt a warm white smiling heat. Smelled copper rust then nothing. A pickaxe had tumbled from the surface above point-first into the base of his skull as he bent and he was stone-dead. There was a change in the air pressure, action. O’Connell calling for help, help, man down, watching the spurt, its pulsating rhythms. Teague stock-still watching the aftermath, watching O’Connell watching, watching O’Connell call, Teague’s ears sealed as with wax.
The area of the O’Connells Darbys and Teagues will be called Bridgeport and the families will remain there for generations enough to have no inkling that the name ever referred to a piece of state of the art engineering, real progress. The name referred to a physical thing and the thing faded away but the name remained tethered to the ghost of the thing, stuck there calling its own name, looking for itself. Darby’s eldest boy will grow into a packer, will weary at the sight of his own only boy an anarchist at the fringes of the Haymarket looking for trouble. George Darby the anarchist will hold up the maimed corpse of his grandfather as a symbol of the oppression of the workers. His eldest son will fight in the Ardennes, come home and open a butchery. Butcher Darby’s elder son will be 4-F and long for glory watching his contemporaries come home kissed by thin-ankled women in the streets. His son will burn flags. His son will fight fires in Bridgeport, will wear his neighborhood pride on his sleeve. P.J. Darby will never know the fullness of his family’s roots, how deep the wellspring of this pride that bursts forth from the base of his young energetic skull. He will know the words but what they refer to is lost.
The company holds a funeral for Darby after the evening whistle. The workmen gather wringing hats in hands around Darby’s body calm and shaven and around Darby’s survivors, the brood. The overseers’ overseer, the section boss, gives a speech on the need for progress, the value of the work. The men watch his fingers with their clean nailbeds tapping at the sides of the podium. They focus on the neat part in his hair. The rise and fall of his white lapel. They disperse to the taverns. Not very far for a pickaxe to drop, to get up that kind of momentum, says one. The point went clean through his skull, half the head of the axe, six inches deep or more. Funny angle too, the crook of the axe come up that way into Darby’s neck. That’s all. When everybody knows something is a fact and there’s nothing to do about it there’s no excitement in arguing. Teague heard a lament from the old land in the auditorium between his dead ears, lonesome in the place’s musty acoustics, adrift longing for the accompaniment of pub-din and good craic. Teague had heard nothing, was concentrated on carving the water’s new route, thinking of the shapes of fiddles, their slender and fat curves, the tautness of their strings, the way they could be made to squeal or to sing depending on the shape of the holder’s calluses, how he angled the bow. When he unbent he felt the pressure in the air had changed and turned around to see O’Connell gesturing, mouth working, begrimed with muck and eyes bigwhite as owl’s eyes. He saw the spurts from prone Darby and prayed to God just as his younger son would fall to his knees and pray and kiss the Rusk County dirt as the earth trembled and the oil began to spatter all around him.
The horse had a name too once but died only a horse. Darby died Darby because of Teague and O’Connell there to call him that, and because of his brood and the way they talked about their father. There might be a record somewhere of the later Teague who struck oil in East Texas and became rich for a span of nearly three years before he was muscled out of the claim by the Standard men, but there is no record of Darby. If the newspapers had written about Darby there might be a record of him now. They didn’t write about him. There is much too much to write about. So Darby’s legacy is his sons and his sons’ sons and the bare fact of his own murder forgotten and without notability. Then again his legacy is the canal itself, the two canals one which he built and one which he attempted and was laid low in. It is their legacy and the legacy of the horses who stood and watched their own brother being heaved into the muck neckfirst. When a man called Darby talks back to a man in power the mechanics of that power dictate his death. When a horse strains harder than he can bear the mechanics of his horseheart dictate his death. When there is nothing written about them the mechanics of memory dictate their legacies, whether or not they’d wish them dictated so. The mechanics of history are created by the living to remember the dead, yet the mechanics exist outside the will of the creators.
When they reversed the flow of the Chicago River they erased these men’s contributions to the improvement of America once and for all. Their progression reversed with the river’s flow, swept down/upstream with the feces and slaughtered carcasses of a city throbbing with life. The I&M Canal shut down completely fifty years after O’Connell, after Teague, after Darby. The locks jammed shut. The river of commerce turned into a mucky destination for desperate young swimmers wringing pleasure out of landlocked summers. The descendants of Teague and O’Connell and Darby built up new families, built them on the backs of the dead men, not knowing they were building on dead men’s backs and hoping never to find out that everything they have made is erected atop a great dormant dragon caked with muck.
Teague’s family never would know he was an accomplished fiddler. They had known upon a time; Margaret Teague had told her sons and daughter stories from the old land, walking the fields of Connacht, and how of an evening Geoffrey Sr. would saw away so your feet might move of their own free will, independent of whether you wanted to dance or not. But they forgot these stories, the stories did not attach themselves to the children’s hearts the way Margaret might’ve intended, the way they’d attached to her own. They floated free from their intended tethers, they did not have the weight of tangible memory or ghosts. When Stephen Geoffrey Teague felt the earth’s crust tremble its vibration was a bass note through his bones, he got so hard he thought his trousers might come unseamed, and when the oil burst forth from the dig site he opened his mouth and sang out, it came forth from his lungs, was drowned in the opera of the strike. Through this he did not recognize anything inevitable. It seemed more like his own doing, his free-forged destiny come to life. He and his family lived lavishly and when the Standard men brought them down he felt that he had been deprived of his natural due. He raged, Stephen did, raged and tossed bottles against the wall until the ritual of shatter and sweep was the underlying rhythm of their evenings.
In Sligo before the famine forced them on boats Teague used to play Furey’s every Saturday evening. He entrusted his fiddle to a friend, didn’t want to take it with him, didn’t know if he even could or if it’d be snatched up by the immigration officers. In New York there was no time, his hands and back ached and twisted up from spading. When the explosives blew out his hearing he told no one, sat silent watching lips move listening to a note like the bow dragging along the A in the fifteenth position. Margaret could tell, would mime things subtly his way. When she mimed bowing he shook his head. Never again would he. By the time of Chicago they suspected he was deaf and would sometimes test him. Walking up behind him to give a sharp clap, the steel clang of shovel on shovel. He never heard. When the boss found out they tried to let him go but Darby threatened the boss, called him a chump, watched him turn beetroot purple. Teague felt the warmth of friendship pass into the air but had missed the meaning of the thing, knew only he was being regarded. Darby must have known the contract he had agreed to. O’Connell had watched it all feeling like a skulker, feeling that he ought to have echoed the threat, ought to have puffed out his chest alongside Darby though he knew the risks of pride. They didn’t speak of it during the day, they didn’t speak of it when they watched the horse’s heart explode or when they dug it into the canalbed or when they sat, separately, along the bar turning their day’s pay by alchemy into golden-brown liquid that burnt just right. O’Connell went home triply, singly, alone and mirrored, to his wife whom he had once married and who had borne for him six children four of which were still upright and hungry, and he scooped mealy mash onto a tin plate and ate by the cold stove, then tromped upstairs to the nightly dream of warm peat, moist rich soil and a gentle breeze bearing myrtle and heather.
Now there’s a towpath in Lockport where of a sunny September Timothy Devon O’Connell may decide to pack the Explorer, put some roast beef sandwiches and lemonade in the cooler, call up to his wife and daughter “We’re going for a drive,” hop on the Stevenson and haul out to 355, windows down doing 70, the girls’ hair crazy in the wind, and exit along the water, walk about a little, have a look at the locks, inhale the different air. They enjoy it for an hour or two. Eat the sandwiches with a big bag of kettle chips, sip lemonade and bottles of seltzer. Enjoy the dumb simplicity of taking full, deep breaths. Smile at one another. Heather O’Connell is nine now and thinks of her friends from school doing this with their families, gets unexpectedly embarrassed. She’ll go in on Monday and pretend it hasn’t happened. When they ask what she did over the weekend she’ll say “Nothin’, I dunno. Watched TV.” “Yeah, me too.” When she grows up she wants to be a lawyer, maybe, or a dancer. Tim swells with pride at having created this family, this life in which they are free to be a bit bored out here at the locks, able to effect these small escapes. They sit for ten minutes in silence before Heather starts to complain, then Tim packs it up, kisses his wife and slides into the driver’s seat, facing east, away from the setting sun. “That was fun,” he says, “wasn’t it?”