Memorial Bridge: A Novel

Memorial Bridge: A Novel

by James Carroll

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547971186
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 05/10/1991
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 495
File size: 899 KB

About the Author

James Carroll was raised in Washington, DC, and ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1969. He served as a chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974, then left the priesthood to become a writer. A distinguished scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University, he is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a regular contributor to the Daily Beast.

His critically admired books include Practicing Catholic, the National Book Award–winning An American Requiem, House of War, which won the first PEN/Galbraith Award, and the New York Times bestseller Constantine’s Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.


James Carroll was raised in Washington, DC, and ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1969. He served as a chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974, then left the priesthood to become a writer. A distinguished scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University, he is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a regular contributor to the Daily Beast. His critically admired books include Practicing Catholic, the National Book Award–winning An American Requiem, House of War, which won the first PEN/Galbraith Award, and the New York Times bestseller Constantine’s Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

The idea of the place was one thing. It had been laid out fifty years before in a perfect square, a mile on each side, one border the south fork of the river, another the outer boulevard that marked the limit of the city. It straddled the terminal points of three great railroads. Its multitude of activities, all designed to turn flesh into coin, were organized according to the rigid grid formed by fifteen miles of railroad tracks and half a dozen of paved avenues. Each intersection formed the corner of a smaller square that repeated the pattern of the great one, and one quarter of the tract was marked further by the lines of countless fences and stone walls so that the section formed a huge maze. These were the animal pens built to corral fourteen thousand head of cattle, twice that many sheep and fifty thousand hogs. The pens were subdivided into further sections by loading platforms, ramps and long rutted chutes leading to one of two mammoth packinghouses from each of which tall graceful chimneys rose like the fingers of a woman drying her nails.

The packinghouses were themselves divided into killing beds, hoisting platforms, disassembly lines, cold-storage vaults, pickle rooms and canneries. Smoke from the chimneys streamed neatly into the sky, the only unused vestige of cattle, hogs and sheep whose flesh, hides, bristles, blood and bones had been so efficiently — the rate was eleven hundred carcasses per hour — turned into hams, bacon, dressed beef, fresh mutton. And glue, brushes, leather, margarine, gelatin, lard and fertilizer.

Several thousand men — mostly Irish, but also Germans, Poles and Bohemians — filed through the Stone Gate at Section Five before dawn each morning. They moved purposefully, each to his exact station. They were railroad men and livestock men and knifemen. They were skinners, butchers, gutters, choppers, trimmers, boners, luggers and wool pluckers. They were cookers and tinners. They were ham sewers. They were pipefitters and fertilizer makers. They were squeegee men whose job was to keep the slaughter room floors clear of blood and offal, and trap cleaners who made sure the pipes carrying the runoff — blood mostly, but also vast quantities of urine and internal discharge — did not clog. Each man had his function, just as each square foot of the perfect square mile had its designated purpose.

On the face of it, in other words, from a distance or on the paper of the market reports, all was order in the Chicago stockyards. The stockyards were an emblem of a larger order. Chicago's Pride, they called it, a wonder of the industrialized world. Not even the Depression, now in its ninth year, had slowed the yards' activity, although every man who carried a lunch pail through the great Stone Gate lived in terror of losing his job. Outside the stockyards Chicago was an employment desert, and on the far side of Halsted Street where the taverns and boardinghouses stood, desperate men gathered daily by the hundreds in the hope that the Swift or Armour agents would pick them as replacements for the knife wielder who'd sliced his finger off or the vat tender who'd fallen into his steaming kettle or the trainman who'd lost a foot in the unforgiving clutch of an iron switch. The stoop-shouldered jobless looked longingly across the walls toward the well-ordered acres of pens and tracks and the structures that loomed above them, the wooden-staved water tanks, the brick carshops with cloudy Gothic windows and the enormous packinghouses with their chimneys; toward the stockyards, Chicago's Pride, because to them, as to everyone, the idea of the place was one thing.

The stench was something else.

The stench was the other thing about the stockyards. Even people who depended on the place for wages, even people who could discourse on the idea of the place as an industrial wonder — the stench made them hate it. Those elegant chimneys, for example, pouring tons of ash and gas into the air, loosed a suffocating cloud of sulfur dioxide into the prevailing southwest winds that carried it over Canaryville to Hyde Park where the packinghouse owners lived and even, on some days, to the Loop itself where the owners had their offices. Countless lesser odors rising off mountains of urine-soaked manure, piles of wet wool, rotting innards, congealed spillage, albumen and lye combined with the overwhelming stink of the rendering required for the manufacture of fertilizer and glue. Discharge sewers poured steaming tankage into the south fork of the river, which so reeked of eye-stinging alkaline that city engineers had found a way to reverse its flow to keep stockyard effluent out of Lake Michigan and the stench away from Chicago proper. Putrid railroad cars carrying livestock to the yards and loads of fertilizer away fanned the odors out through Englewood and Lake and New City.

The yards themselves and the neighborhood behind them — Canaryville — were the concentration of all the foulness, the dead center of it. The stink was in the wood of the frame houses the workers lived in. It was in their clothes. It was in their skin. It was in the felt of the pool tables in the taverns. It was in the cheap beer they drank. Newcomers to the yards went to work with dabs of Vicks Vapo-Rub stuffed under their noses. Eventually their sense of smell would simply cease to function. Children who were born and raised "back of the yards" experienced their first olfactory shock when finally they traveled to other parts of the city — a trip on the El to Grant Park — and smelled nothing.

So the idea of the place was one thing. And the stench was another. But on that day what got to the men in the Swift killing beds was the blood.

Blood like they had never seen before, or smelled. Blood like the Nile River scenes in a Bible movie. Blood as if all those slaughtered animals had found a way to come back and get them. They were used to blood, but not like this; so used to blood that only such an eerie freak happening would make them notice it, would make them think, in fact, about what it was they did. They were skilled butchers, far from squeamish, and their work on the animal disassembly lines hardly encouraged introspection. But the blood this time was different.

These were men whose routine involved precision slitting of jugular veins, beheading beasts with three swipes of the knife, quartering carcasses with exactly aimed cleaver cuts, skinning animals without wasting meat or lard or damaging hides. But this blood was something else.

Instead of running off from the gutters into the floor holes, the holesthemselves, like wounds, began to spurt. The blood began to run back up through the drain holes in the floor of the slaughter rooms. It was such a reversal of what they were used to — of the order on which everyone in the stockyards depended — that they were aware of the seepage at once. It wasn't only that the new blood spurting from the animals they'd just killed did not drain away, but that the blood from the bowels of the building itself began coming back at them like the reversed flow of the Chicago River. It was an offense against the idea of the stockyards, and not only that. There was a sudden new stench too. That quantity of already decomposing blood and offal brought with it an escalation of stink that even those noses registered. Some raised their kerchiefs to just below their eyes to dull the fresh assault. Soon every waste hole on the first level of the building gurgled with the dark foul liquid. The blood kept gushing until, one by one, each drain disappeared beneath the flow. Within minutes the bubbles above each hole dispersed. Then the blood seeped across the floors quietly, quickly overspilling the rutted gutters that were supposed to carry the stuff away, rising to the level of the concrete platforms on which the knifemen stood. Hundreds of drain holes overflowed at once in a dozen different cavernous rooms. The blood splashed onto the slaughtermen's boots and soon covered their ankles. Still it kept coming.

Traps in the smaller waste pipes often clogged with meat scraps or gristle or became fouled with animal hair or chunks of bone, and discharge occasionally backed up through one hole or another. But the entire drainage system? The individuals on the lines never imagined that the cold floors of all the huge slaughter rooms everywhere in the building were covered with rotten fluid just like theirs was. No one saw the horror entire, but every drain hole across thousands of square feet of work space was pumping with blood as if the huge building was suddenly endowed with a mammoth heart muscle, as if the Swift packinghouse itself had at last become a living thing, but one in acute distress, an animal about to die.

Sean Dillon was in the shower when he heard about it. It was the end of his shift, and as always he stood under the scalding water, taking the pain to mean that the effect of another day's work was coming off his body. Other naked yarders clustered under a dozen other shower heads in the tiled, steaming room, but they kept away from Dillon's shower. No one else could stand it that hot, but no one else hated the stench of the stockyards on his body like Dillon did. He rubbed the gritty soap up and down his arms and legs until his skin glowed like an Indian's. He stood with the jet of water pounding his black hair. Because of that, the first words he heard were muffled, unintelligible, and he ignored them.

"Goddammit, Dillon!" The flow of his water was abruptly cut off and Dillon looked up to see in the steam the fully clothed form of Jack Hanley, his boss. "I'm talking to you."

Dillon was too startled to reply. Behind him the other workers continued their showers. He stared at Hanley, whose right sleeve was drenched from reaching into the stream for the spigot handle. Hanley said, "Get your overalls back on. We've got a job." He adjusted the crushed felt bandless hat on his head. Hanley was never seen without it.

"My shift is over, Jack." Dillon moved toward his towel as much to cover himself as to dry his skin. "Besides, I finished the —" "This is something else. Get dressed. Get the tools." Hanley turned to leave, but Dillon grabbed his sleeve, the dry one.

"What is it?"

"The lines are down, all of them. The killing gangs have stopped working."

Dillon's first thought was, Strike! But it couldn't be. The endless Depression had destroyed the union. Any man who talked of strike — or was caught listening to talk of one — was canned on the spot. But what else would shut the lines down? And what could it have to do with Sean Dillon, a three-dollar-a-day steamfitter's helper whose job kept him mainly on the tanks floor two stories above the slaughter rooms or in the boiler rooms which occupied their own separate wings on three sides of the packinghouse? "I've quit working too, Jack. I'm a measly wrench holder. Whatever it is, it doesn't need me."

"It needs me, boyo, and I need you."

"Where's Flaherty? Where's Lonergan?" Dillon toweled his hair vigorously.

A voice from behind Hanley in the room beyond yelled, "Shut the damn door!" The steam was pouring from the shower room into the changing room. Dillon tied the towel around his waist and went through so that Hanley could close the door. At his locker a dozen yards into the room Dillon reached for his shirt, the clean one he wore to work that morning, the one he was going to wear now.

"Didn't you hear what I said? The fucking line is down. Don't you know what that means? A thousand beasts, maybe two thousand right now, all bunched up at the feeder corrals, crashing against the posts and walls. Those animals are jammed up and every minute they get more so. You know what that means, don't you?"

Cattle, sheep and hogs stymied in narrow pens with too little room, pressed by more and more stock, the air charged with ever mounting animal anxiety. Yes, Dillon knew what it meant. He was a city boy, but he'd grown up in the foul shadow of this place, and he knew what its nightmares were. If the mass of cattle, sheep and hogs panicked in their pens, there was no place for them to bolt to. Yet the stampede impulse was still a danger, a greater one, they said, inside the yards than on the open plain. A crazed but penned-up herd would simply maul itself, hogs butting at walls, cattle tearing into each other with their horns, slamming bone against bone, breaking heads, stomping the fallen, a fury unleashed but leashed still by the very pens and therefore all the more furious. Once the animals were seized by that frenzy, nothing would relieve it until they were all dead. Uselessly, absurdly, cruelly dead. And if the frenzy struck, for as long as it lasted the animals would send up a rough piercing squeal of terror that would carry out across Chicago. Dillon himself had heard that sound once years before when a fire had set the animals off. It had so chilled him — he was twelve years old — that he'd vowed never to work in the stockyards, that awful place, that hell. When later he'd found that it was to be a job there or nowhere, he'd swallowed his qualm and put in for steam so that he would have less to do with the animals.

The pipefitters were not kings of the place, or even princes. The kings were knifemen; the princes were livestock handlers and the buyers. By most definitions the pipefitters weren't ranked with the stockyard royalty at all, but they were organized nevertheless according to their own rigid caste, and they regarded themselves — whatever the shit-kickers or cutters said — as an elite. Jack Hanley had accepted Dillon into it because he'd needed a helper at the time, and because Dillon was fresh out of the seminary where he'd been friends with Hanley's nephew.

That was six years ago. By now Hanley had taught Dillon damn near everything he knew, and though the older man would never have admitted it, their relationship had in fact subtly changed. Dillon was a savvy worker, but he was more than that. He had an agile, strong body and an even more agile brain. Mostly the job of steamfitters was to solve the incessant problems of three dozen burdened, aging boiler systems which generated not only steam heat for the huge buildings but also heat essential to the manufacture of margarine, lard, dressed beef and tinned hams. Finding leaks, repairing cisterns, sealing joints, rerouting pipes, maintaining huge cookers and hooking up new water lines to those already in place all involved a feel for systems you could never fully see. Dillon could picture how the steam works ran in the Swift packinghouses better than the old-timers who'd helped lay them out. The old-timers had of course been better fitters than draftsmen, and the drawings they left behind were often useless even to the men, like Hanley, who had learned directly from them. So Hanley, in drawing his rigs, as in plumbing his holes and applying his sealers, had come to depend as much on young Dillon's intuition as on his own memory of what some old fool had taught him back near the turn of the century. Hanley was grateful that it suited Dillon to stay on his slate, though Dillon could have had a slate of his own for a long time now. He had a fierce ambition but, lucky for Hanley, it had nothing to do with the hierarchy of Swift's plumbery.

But that didn't mean Dillon couldn't understand why all stockyarders, even plumbers, lived in dread of a panicked herd. The herd's order was the goal toward which all the other levels of order in the yards were directed — the physical order of the grid layout, the political order that elevated handlers, the ceremonies of stately animal procession through the chutes behind the Judas cow. And the main function of all that order was to keep the animal victims blind to the truth of what awaited them. And wasn't that semblance of order, in turn, how the men kept themselves blind to what the yards were doing, day in and day out, to them?

"Yes, Jack, I know what it means if the animals snap. But that's the handlers' problem. A dead killing line is a knifeman's problem. Or it's the top boss's problem; tell Moran to call Mr. Swift." Dillon had put his clean shirt on and now began to button it. "We're pipefitters, Jack. Remember? Humble pipefitters."

"It's pipes that caused the problem. Blood pipes."

"Blood pipes! Jack, blood pipes are the trap cleaners' job, not ours." Trap cleaning was the scum job of scum jobs.

"It's not the traps. They've checked the traps. Blood backed up a footdeep in all the killing rooms. No single trap blocks that much blood. The amount of it is what shut the lines down. Blood is over their boots down there."

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Memorial Bridge"
by .
Copyright © 1991 Morrissey Street Ltd..
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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