I recognized early a strange desire in me to protect Santini, and I should have had adequate opportunity to do so. Barker and Smith, the boxer and the former dock hand, loved to bully and leer at the weaker men, sometimes challenging them to fist fights on a girder jutting out over the streets a quarter mile below. Always the timid backed down and earned nicknames they would never want to share with their families or friends who knew nothing of our struggles far above them.
Yet, Santini, the smallest and thinnest of us, somehow managed to smile and whisper his way through the minefield of hung-over, stinking men with sun-burnished faces, men who invariably wore floppy caps that resembled their prospects.
Twice I saw the real Santini. The first time was in February of 1932. By then I thought I had become almost accustomed to the idea of walking on the shell of a building that swayed and moved in the wind. Snow slanted down against the building, and a winch slipped.
That was it, as simple as that. Such mishaps were regular occurrences: mechanical failures resulting in either inconvenience or death; we never knew which it would be. This day, in that sinuous veil of blowing snow — when we probably should not have been working at all — the slippage of chain on a pulley meant death. A steel beam came loose above us and the winch captain shouted the warning that struck ice into our brains each time we heard it, “Beam down!” We had time to turn our heads toward the sound on the floor above us, time to see the flailing orange tumble of iron, time to shrink away and feel liquid fear sluicing into our bowels like snow melting on heated concrete. Batt Millhouse did not have enough time. His time had run out.
This day, in that sinuous veil of blowing snow — when we probably should not have been working at all — the slippage of chain on a pulley meant death.
The beam struck a pillar and rotated once, like a clock hand gone mad. It tipped over and the end of it hammered down on Batt’s skull as he tried to move out of the way. The front half of his head was gone when the beam passed, the shouts of “Beam down” accompanying its clattering cascade through the building like the fading glissando of some terrible operatic movement. I was ten feet from Batt when it happened. Santini was right beside him, and when Millhouse’s knees buckled and his torso pivoted, we saw his face was gone, that the mess of blood and bone staring back at us was no longer the visage of a man, that this new creature was no longer one of us. Still, Santini grabbed at him, touched his hand before Batt toppled over the edge as if to go in search of the beam that had killed him.
Death did not mean a break in the work. Weather might, though, and as if to recognize that Batt Millhouse had just been killed, the gray skies of swirling mist and clumped flakes spewed snow on us in great swollen blankets of white. A horn sounded and we were allowed to retreat to any of the temporary shelters, wooden frames with plank floors across the beams, which were located on all the levels of the building. Santini was hunched by himself when I entered. I saw he had been sick in the corner, and that he was wiping at his face as though erasing tears.
The icy wind speared through the cracks in the wood, and we breathed against the cold. After a long time, he surprised me by whispering in that soft voice:
“I can’t see… can’t witness any more dying.”
I knew what he meant. Millhouse had been the fourth man from our floor killed while we had been there. Still, I said, “Why?”
It was a stupid question, and I don’t know why I asked it, especially because all of us felt the same way. We all knew the why. Yet, his answer surprised me.
“October last year, my father, mother and brother died.”
I stared at him, but his eyes were far away. I wondered if that was all he would say, but I saw the pale skin of his throat pulsing as he struggled to utter more. The sound of the frigid wind came to me as I waited.
“He… my father… decided the indignities of his bankruptcy could not be faced… decided for all of us, my mother, my brother and me. He bought us breakfast at the Ritz, seemed to have regained all his cheer, though looking back I see it was a performance.” Santini shrugged his thin shoulders, grimacing it seemed at some foolishness in his thought.
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