Benefit Picnic, Cigar Makers’ Strike, August 1884

Benefit Picnic, Cigar Makers’ Strike, August 1884 Poem By Kevin Stein

I’d seen a head or two a club had done with—
its skin distended across a swollen globe
of purple-orange and blue, even the holes
for eyes and nose and mouth puffed shut,
indistinct as those imagination grants
the full moon, a trick of wishfulness
that what we see is really human, soon
to speak to us. Not a word.
Still, when I got there, stung by briars
and low-slung branches, my chest heaving
for air like the old man I am, when they
flipped over the body so what was the face
was facing us, I dropped to my knees and retched.
His black wool jacket, white collar and tie,
the bit of brown hair not bloodied—all
belonged to Louis, our son. In the dark
behind the dance floor, while I flounced about
with his wife, her sallow skin almost pink
in the gaslight, hired men had yanked him
from the privy and into the woods, had played
the company tune upon his skull one two three,
one two three. He’d thought me odd
to worry so. “This is America!” he’d said,
as if the words were holy. Now this blessing.
By then the women came running, dress hems
in hand, their petticoats a ghostly presence
hovering above the blond grass. One scream
brought forth a chain of screams receding
like some hysterical human telegraph,
until it reached the bandstand, and music
stopped as a heart in mid-beat, an awful
metaphor I’ll admit to, even now.
It’s strange what the mind does to keep sane.
I thought to cry, to blubber in public,

was man’s worst shame. I refused to give in.
It was one stateliness I’d maintain
for us both, after the stinking mess I’d made
upon seeing the mess they’d made of him.
Instead, I spent the minutes thinking of
what to tell his wife and mother, how he’d
died a martyr for a decent wage, as if
that romantic tale might make his death
less brutal, as if a special heaven
were reserved for union men clubbed
by church-going bosses. It was a stupid lie—
though half-true, and so absorbing in its
own naive way, I hardly heard the voice
behind my head, “Father, I’m all right.”

I lurched around to see Louis, clutching
a whiskey bottle he and friends had drained
behind the grandstand. Even his drinking
seemed salvation, arisen from the grave
he’d never entered. Such joy I felt
embracing my drunken Lazarus, such joy,
in my heart, while in my gut a bitter pot,
brewed, bilious and soon to spill—for whose
son was this, splayed dead in the Johnson grass?

Benefit Picnic, Cigar Makers’ Strike, August 1884

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