Favorite Son, fiction by Jennifer Haigh

(orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Vir­ginia Quar­ter­ly Review)

Buck sea­son opened—still does—on the Mon­day after Thanks­giv­ing. In Bak­er­ton it is a hol­i­day of sorts. School was closed for the day, and I report­ed to Keener’s at four a.m. to serve eggs and sausages and count­less cups of cof­fee to men in orange vests and jack­ets. Every table was full despite heavy com­pe­ti­tion from annu­al pan­cake break­fasts at the AmVets, the Elks, and the Moose.

On Open­ing Day the woods rang with rifle shots. Deer were dragged, heft­ed into pick­up trucks. Taxi­dermy shops did brisk busi­ness. Enter­pris­ing free­lancers adver­tised with home­made yard signs: DEER PROCESSED FAST AND CHEAP. The biggest kills were pho­tographed for the Bak­er­ton Her­ald. The fol­low­ing Mon­day its front page ran a jubi­lant head­line: A New Record for Open­ing Week. No one said, and I some­how failed to notice, that it was a ques­tion of sim­ple math­e­mat­ics. In my grand­par­ents’ day, the Bak­er Broth­ers coal com­pa­ny had built hun­dreds of com­pa­ny hous­es, and the mines had employed near­ly every man in town. But that year, when I was a sopho­more in high school, Bak­er Six closed—“mined out,” they said. The Six was Baker’s largest mine, and sud­den­ly nine hun­dred men were cash­ing unem­ploy­ment checks, nine hun­dred men who now had plen­ty of time to hunt deer.

At the cen­ter of the page, just above the fold, was a pho­to of Mitch Stanek in his back­yard. Beside him a mas­sive ten-pointer—a mag­nif­i­cent male specimen—hung upside down from a tree. In the grainy pho­to Mitch was hand­some as a movie actor, his blond hair shag­gy, his cheeks smudged with two-day beard. A woman named Char­lene Dodd had been sent to take his pic­ture, and she had flirt­ed a lit­tle, asked him to take off his vest and cap. Mitch had a cer­tain way of stand­ing, head and shoul­ders back, left fist pressed to his upper thigh. He’d been pho­tographed many times in this stance, for the paper and for his high school year­book, some twen­ty years before.

Back in Mitch’s hey­day, my father had advised the year­book staff. In our base­ment was a full set of the Ban­ner dat­ing to before I was born. As a teenag­er I stud­ied them like lost scrip­tures. I laughed at the out­dat­ed hair­styles, but real­ly I was look­ing for wis­dom, some secret to nav­i­gat­ing a world where I felt mis­placed, ridicu­lous, and shunned. I walked the hall­ways between class­es think­ing about my hair. It was blonde and baby-fine and, despite my best efforts each morn­ing with a curl­ing iron and Aqua-Net, always felt flat by noon. I still wore what was known as a train­ing bra, a gar­ment designed for opti­mists. After three years I saw it for what it was: under­wear for girls whose friends had breasts.

Mitch Stanek’s pho­to was all over his year­book, usu­al­ly in a num­bered jer­sey. As a senior he’d cap­tained teams in foot­ball, bas­ket­ball, and base­ball. For Bak­er­ton it had been a win­ning sea­son. Twen­ty years lat­er, the tro­phies were still on dis­play, fill­ing an entire glass case at school.

He was going to set the world on fire, my moth­er said, look­ing over my shoul­der as I read. Now he’s out of work like every­one else. Mitch Stanek had been her stu­dent in sopho­more Eng­lish, a job she’d left, as female teach­ers used to, when she had her own chil­dren. Now she spent her days nurs­ing my broth­er Ted­dy, who’d been diag­nosed with cys­tic fibro­sis and was in and out of hos­pi­tals. When she spoke of school sports or those who watched or played them, a sour­ness crept into her voice.

My father remem­bered Mitch dif­fer­ent­ly. That kid, now. He was some­thing. He spoke soft­ly, though we were alone in his car and my moth­er couldn’t pos­si­bly have heard. On Sat­ur­day morn­ings Dad gave me dri­ving lessons. The car’s ash­tray was always full, its radio set to the local AM sta­tion, which had broad­cast Bak­er­ton High foot­ball the night before. (On Fri­day nights he vis­it­ed my grand­moth­er in a nurs­ing home two towns over. I imag­ined him kiss­ing her good-bye at five min­utes to eight, just before kick­off time.) He was the sort of father who’d have attend­ed every game and most of the prac­tices, if his own son were able to play.

We sat idling in the high school park­ing lot, Dad lost in mem­o­ry, my dri­ving les­son tem­porar­i­ly for­got­ten.

Mitch Stanek could have made it. He was the real deal. Best thing ever to come out of Bak­er­ton.

My father was a gen­tle soul and meant noth­ing by it. I didn’t point out that Bak­er­ton had also pro­duced me.

When Mitch was first laid off, he put in his name at Beth Steel, for a job that would also prove expend­able but at the time seemed as sol­id as the stuff the mills turned out. Beth Steel nev­er called, a fact that baf­fled him at first, when bad luck was still new to him. “We’ll wait it out,” he told his wife. Unem­ploy­ment would car­ry them through the sum­mer. At the time he believed what every­one believed: that his old job would return, that Bak­er would break ground on a new mine, big­ger and bet­ter than the Six.

She knew bet­ter. It was Deena, after all, who had to stretch the unem­ploy­ment checks to cov­er the car and boat pay­ments, the mort­gage, every­thing their four boys ate and played with and wore. She’d worked for a time sweep­ing up hair at Ruth Riz­zo Beau­ty. Now, with her new license, she opened her own salon in the base­ment. While Mitch wait­ed for the phone to ring, she worked six days a weeks giv­ing hair­cuts and per­ma­nents, but no hair­dress­er could earn what a min­er had.

By August she’d had enough and sent him away. She got the idea from Cheryl Berks, whose hus­band had found a con­struc­tion job in the Vir­ginia sub­urbs. Lou Berks shared a cheap apart­ment with two oth­er laid-off min­ers, and there was room for a fourth. On week­ends the men piled into somebody’s car and drove the four hours back to Penn­syl­va­nia, where their kids, at least, seemed hap­py to see them again.

A tem­po­rary arrange­ment, Deena had called it, but after a few months Mitch was begin­ning to won­der. He’d sug­gest­ed mov­ing the whole fam­i­ly to Vir­ginia, but his wife seemed not to hear him. Of course, he knew the rea­son. The god­damned house.

So each Fri­day night, exhaust­ed, his back aching, Mitch got behind the wheel and drove back to Bak­er­ton. His truck burned gas at a sick­en­ing rate, but he allowed him­self this one extrav­a­gance. After a week in the crowd­ed apart­ment, he couldn’t face shar­ing a ride with the guys.

It was on one of these visits—the first Sat­ur­day in December—that Mitch got his deer. After­wards he stopped at the Vets for a few beers to cel­e­brate.

How many?” Deena demand­ed when he made his way home.

Five,” Mitch lied: he’d had twice that, but beers cost half what they did in Vir­ginia, so he felt jus­ti­fied. Deena mere­ly frowned.

What­sa mat­ter?” he asked, smelling a fight and ready for it, but Deena didn’t have time to argue. My moth­er was wait­ing in the base­ment, ten min­utes ear­ly for her perm.

Mitch was livid,” my moth­er report­ed lat­er, by phone, to her friend the school nurse. His move to Vir­ginia had revived old gos­sip: that Deena was ready to divorce him, that he’d hit her with a closed hand. It wasn’t hard to pic­ture. Mitch was a big man, Deena so petite she wore shoes from the girls’ depart­ment. Even after four babies she was tiny as a doll. Though no fan of Mitch Stanek, my moth­er called the rumors base­less. True, Deena was once seen with a bruise on her shoul­der, but no one had to wear a sun­dress. No one would, my moth­er main­tained, if she had some­thing shame­ful to hide.

She went to Deena’s every Sat­ur­day after­noon for a wash and set. The beau­ty shop had its own entrance, so she nev­er got a look at the rest of the house, a hand­some split-lev­el on the out­skirts of town. My moth­er admired it, though she allowed that it was big­ger than any fam­i­ly need­ed, with a three-car garage to hold Mitch’s snow­mo­biles and as many bath­rooms as chil­dren. She was not alone in this opin­ion. Most of Bak­er­ton still lived in com­pa­ny hous­es, bought from the mines and dis­guised with porch­es and alu­minum sid­ing, but easy to spot by the famil­iar floor plan, three rooms upstairs and three rooms down.

Mitch thinks we should sell,” Deena con­fessed as she rinsed my mother’s hair at the sink. And sure enough, a few weeks lat­er the house was list­ed in the Her­ald, at a price the town found insult­ing. No buy­er could be found; accord­ing to my moth­er, this was just as Deena had intend­ed. She wasn’t about to lose that house.

She came from poor peo­ple. We all did, I lat­er learned, though at the time I thought we had rich and poor like any oth­er place. Even by local stan­dards the Vances lived mean­ly, in a duplex behind the gas com­pa­ny, a dark street loud with fuel trucks. Deena’s moth­er worked in the dress fac­to­ry, and the Unit­ed Minework­ers sent her a month­ly check from the wid­ows fund. With half as many chil­dren, she might have lived in rea­son­able com­fort.

Deena was the old­est of six, a lit­tle beau­ty. As a girl she resem­bled the actress Kim Novak, except that Kim dyed her hair and Deena was a nat­ur­al blonde. She met Mitch in high school when she was just a fresh­man. Mitch was a junior then, busy with his var­i­ous sports. In the sum­mers he worked as a life­guard. At the town swim­ming pool, in pairs or threes, girls in biki­nis approached his chair, kept him com­pa­ny dur­ing his shift. As they spoke Mitch’s eyes wan­dered, alert for swim­mers in dis­tress. He nev­er showed the slight­est inter­est in dat­ing, until Deena Vance.

My moth­er and the school nurse, who fol­lowed stu­dent romances with an inter­est that now seems pecu­liar, shared in the gen­er­al aston­ish­ment when Mitch took Deena to the win­ter ball. “For heaven’s sake,” my moth­er huffed. “Why her?” The Staneks were a sol­id fam­i­ly. Mitch’s father, a past pres­i­dent of the Minework­ers local, was a lec­tor in our church. (Even now, when I read the let­ters of St. Paul, I hear them in Herk Stanek’s gruff voice.) Mitch was that rare thing in Bak­er­ton, a boy with a future. When he played in the state bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onships, scouts had been seen in the stands. In bars and bar­ber­shops, spec­u­la­tion was ram­pant: bas­ket­ball or foot­ball? Penn State or Pitt? The ques­tion wasn’t whether he’d go to col­lege but which one.

At Bak­er­ton High the mat­ter was debat­ed in the fac­ul­ty lounge, in a cloud of cig­a­rette smoke. Like the crowd at a junior high dance, the teach­ers split along gen­der lines, women at the long tables near the win­dow, men stand­ing around the cof­fee machine. They spoke of many things—local affairs, movies, and politics—but were most ani­mat­ed when dis­cussing their stu­dents. The men knew how far Mitch could throw a foot­ball. The women were more inter­est­ed in Deena Vance.

It won’t last,” my moth­er told the school nurse. “He’s got big­ger fish to fry.”

My moth­er was wrong.

Mitch and Deena became insep­a­ra­ble. They walked hand in hand through the school cor­ri­dors. In the sum­mer she rode with him to work. Girls no longer approached the life­guard chair, not with Deena stretched out on a tow­el a few yards away, eyes closed, work­ing on her tan. Every hour Mitch took a break. To emp­ty the pool he blew two long blasts on his whis­tle. He approached Deena’s tow­el and knelt at her feet. She was fif­teen years old, beau­ti­ful and naked but for two bright strips of nylon. Mitch Stanek was a giant fall­en to his knees.

You wait,” my moth­er told the school nurse. “Wait until school starts.”

By school she meant foot­ball. The first home game was the last week­end in August, a sul­try night; the spec­ta­tors wore shorts and tank tops. A few bare chests were paint­ed in the team’s col­ors, black and gold like the Steel­ers’. In that crowd, the two men in suits were as con­spic­u­ous as drag queens. More scouts were spot­ted a week lat­er, and again in Octo­ber. In Novem­ber Mitch made his deci­sion: not Pitt or Penn State, but Flori­da State, a choice that blind­ed the town with its sheer exoti­cism.

Could Mitch play in hot weath­er?

And what about poor Deena?

I imag­ine her grim face as they walked the halls of Bak­er­ton High, Mitch stop­ping to receive hearty hand­shakes, the squeals of dis­be­lief and delight. The cat­ti­er girls con­grat­u­lat­ing Deena—You’ll be down there every month to vis­it!— know­ing she couldn’t afford bus fare to Altoona, nev­er mind an air­line tick­et.

Flori­da gave Mitch the hero treat­ment, fly­ing his par­ents down to have a look at the cam­pus, pay­ing for their meals and air­fare and Mitch’s new clothes. The Her­ald ran a sto­ry on page 1, with a pic­ture of Mitch in his new jack­et and tie. It was the first time he’d been pho­tographed out of uni­form.

He left Bak­er­ton two weeks after grad­u­a­tion, in time for sum­mer train­ing camp. Herk drove him to the air­port in Pitts­burgh, with Deena rid­ing along. Mitch’s sis­ter took a pho­to of his plane tak­ing off; it was print­ed in the next week’s Her­ald. STANEK HEADS SOUTH! Town’s favorite son march­es on.

Fall came. For three months of Sat­ur­days the town was glued to the tele­vi­sion. Mitch sat out two games but—my father would remem­ber it always—threw a touch­down in the third. The ele­men­tary school class­es wrote him let­ters of con­grat­u­la­tion. Then Mitch came home at Thanks­giv­ing and announced he was quit­ting school.

Soon all of Bak­er­ton had heard about the drugs down there, how his room­mate smoked mar­i­jua­na at night while Mitch was sleep­ing, how just breath­ing that smoke made him feel sick and crazy. In bars and bar­ber shops, men debat­ed Mitch’s deci­sion. The young ones called him fool­ish. Their fathers argued that you didn’t mess with drugs.

She’s preg­nant,” my moth­er told the school nurse. “Mark my words.”

Mitch got his union card by Christ­mas, but a full year passed before he and Deena mar­ried. Once again my moth­er was wrong.

I grew up and for­got these sto­ries. I went away to col­lege, and Bak­er­ton reced­ed from my imag­i­na­tion. Like Mitch Stanek, I was a schol­ar­ship case, but I had no inten­tion of wast­ing my chance.

At hol­i­days, at school breaks, I came back to vis­it. Dri­ving down Main Street was like vis­it­ing a beloved aunt in hos­pice, a breath away from the grave. Bak­er Four had closed, and the Eleven would soon fol­low. At Bak­er Nine the men worked three days a week. For Sale signs appeared on lawns, in win­dows, but no one was buy­ing. Fam­i­lies divid­ed, as the Staneks had done. At Bak­er­ton High the class­es were shrink­ing. My father took the ear­ly retire­ment the state offered, thank­ful for his pen­sion, grate­ful to get out while he could.

At col­lege I worked and stud­ied; I came back jad­ed and world­ly from a junior year abroad. After grad­u­a­tion I vis­it­ed less fre­quent­ly. My par­ents aged before my eyes, grad­u­al­ly and then rapid­ly. One year, at Christ­mas, my father was shock­ing­ly gaunt. His dry cough had grown into some­thing more omi­nous. He had suf­fered through a hard month of treat­ment, but the prog­no­sis was clear.

For his ben­e­fit we walked through the old rit­u­als: Bing Cros­by on the stereo, the tree hung with famil­iar orna­ments, a Pop­si­cle-stick angel my broth­er had made before he died. By Christ­mas Eve my father was exhaust­ed, his cough near­ly con­stant. “The Lord will for­give me,” he said. “You two go ahead.” With a creep­ing dread I dressed for mid­night Mass. I had been a col­lege athe­ist; now I lacked even that con­vic­tion. I hadn’t been inside a church since Teddy’s funer­al. Under oth­er cir­cum­stances I would have declined polite­ly, but that year I didn’t have the heart.

The church was crowd­ed, fam­i­lies reunit­ed for the hol­i­day. We squeezed into a pew near the front. I rec­og­nized Mitch and Deena Stanek with their four sons, arranged in order of height, small­est to tallest, like a set of Russ­ian dolls. From behind Mitch still resem­bled a col­lege ath­lete, his thick neck and broad shoul­ders, his blond hair untouched by gray. I’d seen his truck parked behind the church, one of many with Vir­ginia plates. Watch­ing him, I was filled with an old long­ing I’d near­ly for­got­ten: to be Mitch and Deena both, not now but a life­time ago, when they were beguil­ing and rare.

I was think­ing such thoughts when Father Vel­tri swept down the aisle, a stout lit­tle man in white hol­i­day vest­ments. He stopped just ahead of me and leaned in to touch Mitch’s shoul­der, so close that I could smell his after­shave.

Mer­ry Christ­mas, Mitchell,” he whis­pered as they shook hands. “I have a favor to ask.” He hand­ed over a leather-bound book, the page marked with a red rib­bon: Paul’s epis­tle to Titus. I knew it almost by heart.

I’d be grate­ful if you could read this,” said the priest. “In mem­o­ry of your father. Herk would be proud.”

Mitch’s face red­dened. “I’m sor­ry, Father. I’m not much of a pub­lic speak­er.”

Come on,” said Deena. “Pop would want you to.”

I said no.” Mitch’s whis­per was harsh­er, some­how, than if he’d shout­ed. Deena looked as strick­en as I felt. Even then, in my sec­u­lar phase, I couldn’t imag­ine say­ing no to a priest.

Father Vel­tri, appar­ent­ly, couldn’t imag­ine hear­ing it. “It isn’t long,” he told Mitch, point­ing to a line on the page. “Come to the lectern after I say the bless­ing. I appre­ci­ate it, Mitchell.” He left the book in Mitch’s hand and swept away in a rus­tle of satin, a plump lit­tle swan.

A moment lat­er the Mass start­ed. The aging choir war­bled the open­ing hymn. With­out a word to Deena, Mitch turned his back to the altar. Stone-faced, in front of God and every­body, he marched out of the church.

I nev­er saw Mitch Stanek again. That spring my father suc­cumbed to lung can­cer, and I went back to Bak­er­ton for the funer­al. The day was warm and spring­like, the snow near­ly melt­ed. I bor­rowed my mother’s car and spent the after­noon on the coun­try roads where I’d first learned to dri­ve. I saw, then, that the Staneks’ house stood emp­ty. They had final­ly moved to Vir­ginia, enrolled their boys in school there. A Cen­tu­ry 21 sign was spiked into the front yard.

That Christ­mas Eve, after church, my moth­er and I had rid­den home in silence. The Mass had droned on for more than hour, but Mitch did not reap­pear. Deena had gone to the lectern in his place, her voice shak­ing a lit­tle on the first words: Dear­ly beloved, the grace of God our sav­ior has appeared to all men.

He can’t read,” I said.

My moth­er kept her eyes on the road. A light snow was falling, and her reflex­es aren’t what they used to be. Dri­ving now requires her full atten­tion, espe­cial­ly after dark.

That’s why he dropped out of col­lege. Drugs had noth­ing to do with it.”

Still she didn’t respond.

You were his teacher.” Sopho­more Eng­lish: The Red Badge of Courage, The Scar­let Let­ter, Bil­ly Budd, books Mitch Stanek had been test­ed on. His com­pre­hen­sion had been judged ade­quate. He’d been giv­en a pass­ing grade.

Final­ly my moth­er spoke.

He had a prob­lem. Some form of dyslex­ia, I believe. It was nev­er diag­nosed.” With great care she braked and sig­naled. “Times were dif­fer­ent then, Rebec­ca. We didn’t know about that sort of thing.”

But he grad­u­at­ed.” You let him, I thought.

It wasn’t right,” she said, “but it seemed best. I ago­nized over it at the time. Now I’m not sure it made any dif­fer­ence.”

I saw her point. With­out a diplo­ma Mitch would have mined coal any­way, been laid off any­way. He’d have lost only those few months in Flori­da, his pic­ture in the paper, the endur­ing leg­end the town still cher­ished. For Bak­er­ton it had been a net gain. For Mitch Stanek, the out­come would have been rough­ly the same.

She pulled the car into the dri­ve­way and cut the head­lights. “Ed doesn’t know,” she said, and I thought of the radio in his old Buick: my father lis­ten­ing to the games in secret, away from my mother’s dis­dain, her caus­tic and some­times mer­ci­less tongue. The local heroes—the Mitch Staneks—had been her favorite tar­gets; but in the end she was not mer­ci­less. She left my father his idols. Maybe she’d want­ed Mitch to win, just like every­one else did.

We sat a long moment in the dark car. The white flakes land­ed like news from heav­en: notes from else­where, fall­en from the stars.

pho­to: Asia Kep­ka

Jen­nifer Haigh is the author of three nov­els: The Con­di­tion, Bak­er Tow­ers and Mrs. Kim­ble. She has won the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fic­tion and the PEN/L.L. Win­ship Award for out­stand­ing book by a New Eng­land writer. Her short sto­ries have appeared in The Atlantic, Gran­ta, Ploughshares, The Sat­ur­day Evening Post and many oth­er places. Her fourth nov­el, Faith, will be pub­lished by Harper­Collins in May, 2011.

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3 Responses to Favorite Son, fiction by Jennifer Haigh

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Fried Chicken and Coffee - Favorite Son, fiction by Jennifer Haigh -- Topsy.com

  2. charles says:

    that was great.

  3. Pingback: saturday short fiction from jennifer haigh | jennifer pooley

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