THIRSTY: a novel by Kristin Bair O'Keeffe

The Cutting Room

As I wrote and rewrote Thirsty, a number of sections hit the cutting room floor. The following section of the chapter entitled “1892” is one of them. Unlike the rest of the novel, it is written in second person, present tense. It zips you forward from Klara’s lifetime to the 1980s when the steel mills in Pittsburgh crashed and closed. It tells an important part of the history of the city and the steel industry, but in the end I decided that it took readers too far from Klara.

(I made this decision at the very end of the editorial process. I cut the section during the last review by my editor at Swallow Press.)

The Cut Section (cut from “1892”)

Today there is little left of Thirsty. Since the time of industrial grandiosity, the mills have been razed. Young families have migrated north and south to trim, spacious suburbs where lawns stretch long and lush and the distance between houses is such that a cup of polenta can no longer be passed from kitchen window to kitchen window. Thirsty is idle, with the occasional thrum of tires on the gravel road. Old men and women biding their final years look up into the night sky. For the first time in over a century, the sky is blue and black, and the old folks are surprised at the odd longing they feel for the fiery orange glow from the staggered smokestacks that once cut the horizon and the eye-watering rotten-egg stink that accompanied it. The garbage dump that divided it from the next town over is dense with weeds and maple saplings. There are few children, no schools, no police or emergency care. Mountainous slag piles and abandoned ingot molds litter the once-rich farmland. Long stretches of railroad track are grown over with blackberry bushes.

But despite your age and the slow realization that so many years later the mills as you knew them were done for, you remember that the strike was mostly about men taking hold of their lives. You remember that it took a long time for poor immigrants and the hesitant, but strong-willed descendants of slaves to own their souls enough to say, This is not enough and this is not okay and this must change. You remember when a tiny, seemingly insignificant screw turned in the great steel-making mechanism and the men who worked behind the fence found strength and reason where before they had found none. You remember when they bonded, set down their hammers and saws, let the cookers go out, and walked away from the mill. You remember that feeling of triumph, then the fear that quickly followed, and the look on your wife’s face that, despite the fact that she passed on decades ago, still simmers in the forefront of your mind. The look that burned with determination. You remember the realization that so much of our lives depends on comparison: here with there, today with yesterday, male with female, hunger with satisfaction, noise with silence. You also remember the picket lines, the chants, the black-and-white signs that grew heavy after four or five hours on your shoulder, the steaming coffee that offered some relief in the early morning hours—these stand clear and you often tell of them to your great-grandson who is the only one to express an interest in what you’ve got to say. He’s twenty, still young, but full of questions. Talking with him helps you not to forget. Of course, you tell him, no one listened during the first or the second strike, perhaps not even during the third or the fourth, but you remember that over time, and especially after the fifth, when men on barges were killed and the owner of the mill hid in a country far from the bloodshed until it was all over and he could return with clean hands, that a few things began to change and a few people began to take notice.

You are walking down the street with this great-grandson, a street which used to be soft with mud and fine grains of soot and cinder but is now hard with pavement, and the great mountain of slag, which grew from a mere fistful, towers all around you. You lost most of your hearing in the mill and wear a finely tuned hearing aid that magnifies his voice as well as your own, but out of habit, you speak more loudly than necessary. You tell him that they, again the men with more money but not bigger imaginations than you, have decided that the slag pile has stood as a bare-faced monument long enough. You tell him, although he already knows and can certainly look around and see for himself, that they are actually developing it into strip malls and grocery stores. You tell him that nothing will grow on slag and that in twenty more years, they’ll be disappointed that no one considered how ugly the development would be without the possibility of trees or shrubs or flowers. Rumor has it, your great-grandson responds, there will soon be a movie house with thirty-two individual theaters. You look down at the ground and shake your head.

Later in the day, when your great-grandson drives you past Thirsty’s old town center, you point out and name each establishment despite the fact that all are boarded up and most are falling down. You try not to let your great-grandson see the tears that well in your eyes and talk briefly about the brilliance of the afternoon sun. And even later, when he drives along the river where a vast park with a bicycle path and many fancy condominium buildings stand in place of the monstrous millworks, you swallow hard and hope that life changes for the better. Of course you know that the air is much sweeter, that the water in the river is much cleaner, and that the general situation of the folk who live here is better, but still you long for the smokestacks and the rotten-egg stench and the sound of steel being poured. You can’t explain it to someone who didn’t live it and you don’t even try. You simply turn down your hearing aid and nod off with your head leaning against the window.