Pale Yellow Light
The village of Darragh was only half of a crossroads, a large T in a western Pennsylvania county road where you turned either left or right to go to Madison, at twice the size of Darragh, something the locals called a town, though no one else did. At this half-a-crossroads, where the road to Madison began, stood a small, two-story frame house, the ground floor of which, in 1957 when John last saw it, was occupied by the Darragh post office. The post office amounted to half a basement with two fluorescent lights and a small bank of mailboxes with tiny brass doors. The walls of this half-basement were painted a pale green, and a flag hung outside the door. John remembered the flag as one of the few signs of life among the cluster of houses that hugged this half-a-crossroads.
The other sign of life in Darragh was Prince's store, or "Princie’s" as his mother called it. Darragh's only store, it occupied the front half of an immense wooden-frame building, twice the size of many barns. What the rest of Prince's building was used for, John never knew. At the age of five, all he cared to know was that Prince's sold three-cent chocolate bars, important to know when Baby Ruth and Three Musketeers were a nickel. Prince’s lay about a hundred yards down the road to Madison from the post office. It had a small lot on the right side of the building, where the milk, bread, and soft drink trucks parked while unloading. Further down the road, about a hundred and fifty feet from Prince's, stood the tipple of the Cambruzzi Coal Mine, its massive oak timbers prematurely gray from regular showers of coal dust.
The only other activity in Darragh, other than the farming in the surrounding fields, was the killing of cattle at the Castle Slaughterhouse, half a mile up the road from the post office. John had never gone there as a boy. When the wind was right, the smell alone was enough to keep him away, even before he knew what happened there.
That was Darragh, a tiny village in the low, rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, about ten miles from the Youghigheny River, which flows north from the steep hills of West Virginia to McKeesport, one of many small steel towns near Pittsburgh. In 1954, John’s family had moved to Darragh to live in a squat, one-story, apartment building that sat beside a large maple tree on top of a small hill about two hundred yards to the west of the post office. Tony Cambruzzi, owner of Cambruzzi Coal Company, had built the apartments from the money he had made selling the coal which daily thundered into the beds of huge, ten-ton dump trucks parked beneath the tipple outside his mine. The coal from Cambruzzi's mine was soft and sooty, the kind that gave coal miners black lung disease, and turned the air a sulphurous yellow above the banks of coke ovens near McKeesport, where the Youghigheny entered the Monongahela River, seven miles upriver from Pittsburgh. That coal came back to Darragh as slag from those ovens, waste from the process of choking a coal fire to make coke for the blast furnaces of the J & L and Edgar Thompson steel mills. The same ten-ton dump trucks that daily hauled the coal to McKeesport carried the slag back to Darragh, to the top of the big hill above the mouth of the Cambruzzi mine, and on the other side of the road, dumped it there, turning the hill into a small, reddish-brown mountain of lifeless ash, its barren slopes forever the color of dried blood.
The small hill where John had lived lay across the valley from the slag heap. He lived with his mother Mary, Gilbert, his father, his seldom-seen, older brother Clark, and his new baby sister Sarah, named after the grandmother he loved so but rarely saw. She had lived in Turtle Creek, in the shadow of the Westinghouse Air Brake plant. To escape the dismal life of that working class town, Gilbert and Mary had decided to take their children away from their three grandparents, sixteen aunts and uncles, and score of cousins in East Pittsburgh and settle in the rolling hills of Westmoreland County, twenty miles to the east.
John had been born in St. Francis Hospital in Pittsburgh, and though he was already three years old when he moved to Darragh from Turtle Creek, it had become home. And it remained so deep within him because, on the other side of the hill from where he lived, in a little section of woods between the many small farm fields, something stole quietly into his heart and mind as he sat on the dry, leaf-littered forest floor late one summer afternoon. He sat alone, watching the shafts of yellow sunlight dance across the bright green moss that hugged the feet of the older trees nearby, across the light brown, brittle dry leaves, and across his smooth-skinned hands and bare, thin legs, leaving patches of warmth that the breeze gently washed away. In that moment, his world began moving.
He couldn't explain that moment, even now on the other side of forty. As a boy, he had been in those woods many times, had been alone most of the time, and had sometimes sat contentedly watching shadows and sunlight dance on the grass under the apple, pear, and cherry trees that Mr. Cambruzzi had planted alongside the dirt road leading up the hill to where he lived. But that moment in the woods had been different. Something in him was ready that day. Perhaps the wind knew it, and so sighed softly in the green treetops. Perhaps the sun wanted it, and so shone warmly in that hazy, blue, summer sky filled with great mounds of white clouds. Maybe the woods planned it, releasing waves of scent--the dank richness of earth, the sweet fragrance of pine needles, the subtle pungency of dried leaves. For once he didn't feel alone, though he knew that he was. Something was there with him, but more than just the wide world around him. It was something that called to him, that knew him. In that moment, John saw the precise color of the shafts of pale, yellow sunlight, and the rhythm they danced across his knees, across the green moss and the brown litter of dead leaves. The time was full, complete, everything as it should be, and yet new and unfolding. It looked like a slowly moving train, and if he could just run alongside it long enough, he might reach out his hands, grab hold of a railing and hoist himself aboard. If he could just do that, then he could ride through the rest of his days, discovering himself around every bend of the track. No more isolation. No more fear.
That was what he now thought the moment had been, what he thought it had meant, as he looked for the first time in thirty years at the tall maple tree still standing beside the house where he had lived. It was his myth of himself, what he believed he had seen that day, had almost realized. He needed that myth, something to explain the split he felt inside. For he had missed that train. The moment had passed. And all that remained to tell him it had happened, that he had really been there and seen it, was the particular shade of yellow sunlight that had signaled its arrival. He had seen that light many times over his life. He had often found it on the trunks of trees in empty yards on late September afternoons, or on the sides of buildings on deserted city streets.
Perhaps he had spent too much time alone. His life in Darragh had been that way. Whether playing coal truck driver in the lilac bushes at the front of the apartments, climbing the maple to sit in a forked branch high in the treetop, where he swayed to the irregular rhythms of the wind, or wandering through the cornfields out behind the apartment, he was alone. They had no dog, and the few neighbors there were had no kids his age. Even the cows lived far away on distant hillsides, their movements imperceptible.
His brother Clark, a year and a half older, was always off somewhere with some other kids. The only memory he had of them together came from the day he learned to ride Clark's bike. Shortly after discovering that secret, John came flying down the hill from Cambruzzi's apartment, toward the post office and the intersection with the Madison road. Along the way, however, he found he had yet to discover the secret of coaster brakes. Filled with the thrill of danger, he raced down the Madison road to Prince's store and crashed into the back of a Pepsi truck parked outside.
Clark came running, in long, loping strides, laughing and shouting across the hay field between Prince's store and their apartment. He had watched the entire little drama unfold from atop their hill. The fear John had felt over crashing his brother's bike overshadowed the dull pain he felt in his groin from the impact with the handlebars. Whatever pain he felt slowly washed away in the laughter and attention he got from Clark as they walked back across the field toward Cambruzzi's hill. While he recounted the thrill of his misadventure, he never wondered what had moved Clark to show such interest in him. It didn't matter. That was as close as his older brother had come to him.
This feeling that he was somehow cut off, both from others and himself, crystallized one warm and hazy, early summer afternoon, June 19th, 1970, to be exact. John had gone swimming with Frank Locke, a friend from high school. At least they had seemed on their way to becoming friends. Frank had called John and asked him to go swimming at Bachman Lake, a small reservoir about six miles from Darragh. Not much bigger than a football field, it was used by a nearby golf course for watering the fairways and by local kids for fishing. Secluded from both the golfers and some nearby houses by a stand of pine trees, the water was often mossy green so you couldn't see the bottom, even close to shore. They drove there in Frank's car, a white, 1964 Ford Comet. They hadn't swum more than half an hour before Frank said he wanted to get out. John would rather have stayed longer, just to spend time with his new friend, but he wasn't a strong swimmer like Frank, and was afraid in water where he couldn't see bottom. So they sat down on the bare ground as they dried off, making small talk about school and friends. Then they dressed and went to the car to leave.
It happened soon after they got in. Right after putting the key in the ignition, Frank suddenly grabbed the steering wheel with both hands and pushed himself back in his seat, hard, the way a person might just as his car is about to go over a cliff. John heard him moan strongly, the cry coming from deep within his large chest. Frank stared straight ahead and never looked left or right, never uttered another word, except to moan again, this time weak and pathetic, from within his throat. John knew in his bones something awful was happening. "Frank, are you all right? Frank, what's the matter?" He stupidly repeated the questions, each time his voice betraying more dread, more despair, as the truth crept closer. Stupid questions for the dying. Frank never answered because he couldn't. He was slowly choking to death. The upset stomach that had cut short their swim had erupted, and a piece of poorly chewed hot dog, so the coroner told John the next day, had lodged in Frank's trachea, allowing just enough air to pass in and out for him not to clutch his throat in obvious strangulation, but just enough to sit there and die slowly, struggling vainly to breathe, to live. The coroner had also assured John that only an emergency tracheotomy could have had any chance of saving him.
And so John sat, frozen throughout, unwitting and unwilling witness to Frank’s sudden departure from life. The worst was watching the light fade from Frank's eyes, seeing them glaze over and stare blankly through the windshield. Another perfect moment. Frank was both there in front of him, and not there. The sun shone brightly when John finally got out of the car, ran around to the driver's side, and pulled Frank's heavy, lifeless bulk from the front seat, laying him down beside the car where a reflex action sent some of the lunch that had killed him out of his limp mouth and down his cheek to the ground. John mistook this for a last flicker of life. Desperately clinging to that false hope, yet knowing that what lay beside Frank's car was simply a corpse, he ran to a nearby house to get help. The paramedic team arrived some time later, tried vainly to jump start Frank's heart, and quickly put his body in the ambulance. John would feel the weight of Frank's body once again, a few days later, as he helped carry the casket to the grave.
He couldn't help thinking of Frank as he walked up the dirt road to his old home, now marked by a sign saying "Cambruzzi's Hill" the only apparent change in three decades. As he came closer, he smiled when he saw the lilac bushes still beside the sidewalk at the front of the building, and still small enough for a boy to sit inside. Of the fruit trees, only the pear remained, its overripe fruit lying in sweet-smelling profusion on the ground. Everything else looked exactly the same, even the tall maple tree on the side of the house seemed not to have grown much taller in all those years.
John stood for a moment at the back of the building, looking out over the fields that bordered his little hill. They still grew alfalfa and corn as before. Suddenly the landscape made him lose his sense of time. Memories began rushing at him, too many to see each one clearly. Under the spell of this reverie, or perhaps from some other force, he started walking toward the woods on the other side of the hill. He enjoyed the way his feet seemed to remember every step. And the more familiar everything looked, the more he tried to ignore the thought that stood like a beggar outside his door. Late afternoon, but the sun still shone through the clouds as it moved closer to the horizon.
When he finally got to the blackberry field in front of those woods, he stopped. A new barbed wire fence stood around the field. It was also electrified. But a small step ladder stood straddling the fence. John climbed the ladder and paused at the top, looking out over the field at the woods beyond. Down there, off to the right, less than a hundred yards away, was the spot. Right down over there. As he stood at the top, he noticed how more numerous and much thicker the blackberry bushes looked, their jagged branches up to and over the wire fence. Suddenly he felt strange, almost like a trespasser. Looking up at the sky, he watched the late afternoon sun slip into a thick blanket of clouds just above the horizon. He continued to look at the place where the sun had set, then one last time at the field and his woods on the other side. Then he turned around, descended the ladder, and walked away.
Copyright © Mark McTague, 1991