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Justice for the Grimms and the Hubbards and for Governor Hart, their willing tool. Why? Because the wobblies stand for the common worker. Fight for the common worker. Die for the common worker. “Shut up!” Bert cried. “How can I think?” “Little kids,” the old man apologized. “They don’t even know why they’re here.” He put his hand tenderly on the sore places on his face. “Their minds are poisoned,” he said painfully. “How can they know? That hurts me, Bert.” He began to cough again. “I’ll say this,” he said. “I don’t think much of the mother.... You boys! Why ain’t you in school?” “They let school out.” They let school out, Bert thought. They made it a holiday. You can go home now, Wesley Everest is dead. The schoolbells ringing. Yes, and all over the state and all over the country the kids would get a holiday and run out in the schoolyards hollering and yelling while his body floated in the Chehalis and the dogs ran loose in the streets. You can go home now, he thought. The wobblies are dead.
The trees drained steadily. The older boy had stopped crying; a little life had come back to him. The old man moved over near them, leaning against a snag as he questioned them, “What’s your name, son?” The younger one said, “Kelly Hanrahan.” “What’s yours?” The boy murmured inaudibly. “You better let us alone,” he said. “My father.” He looked at his feet and his voice trailed off into silence.
“What’s your name?” “What does your old man do?” “He’s superintendent...” The boy’s voice was faint and defiant. “You better let me go!” he said. “My father...” The old man murmured, “The soup’s boy....” He turned to Kelly.
“What does your father do?” “He’s choker-setter.” “Does he know you’re out here?” The boy hesitated. “He don’t care what I do.” The woods were almost dark. Bert could hear the boy’s shaken breathing and see the play of muscles twitching nervously across his cheek. This was the superintendent’s boy, miles from home, in the middle of the woods....
Suddenly his mind was clear and awake.
The old man said in a tired voice, “You boys don’t know why you’re here. You don’t know why you’re against us. You don’t know what happened.” They did not answer.
The old man said softly, “Boys, listen to me. You hear things about us.
You hear that we laid in wait and shot into their parade and you couldn’t count all the lies they tell about us. But this is the truth. This is what happened.” The younger boy hunched his wet army coat over his shoulders and looked nervously at Bert. The little kids, Bert thought, why would they let them come out? Would they let them come out if the people were against us and hunting in the hills?
“This is the truth,” the old man said softly. “Listen to me now.” “There were some men in Centralia who gave their lives to the working people. They believed that working people ought to stick together for their rights. They believed that workmen ought to get the full return for the work they did. They did not believe in the war—they did not believe the workmen of one country should go out and kill the workmen of another country—they believed that all workmen ought to stick together.” He spoke slowly and painfully, struggling to keep his voice down.
“Now listen. All the people who hire men to work for them—all the millowners and the bankers and the business men and the property owners—hated these men. Do you understand that? They said they were going to drive them out of Centralia. They said they were progerman and unamerican and everything else.
This is what they did. Listen. Last year there was a parade in Centralia, and when the parade went past our hall, these men, businessmen and ex-soldiers and Legionaires, they broke in the hall and smashed everything there. They smashed the tables and the chairs and tore up the books and beat up everybody there.
They did that. The business men did that.” The boys stirred miserably. The trees darkened and drained; the rain had stopped. “Listen,” the old man said. “Listen to me. The wobblies came back. We fixed up that place again. And this year, when those men raided it again, we were ready for them. We waited. There was nine men inside and three thousand outside. And the nine men fought the three thousand and fought them off, as long as they had ammunition. Did you know that? Did they tell you that?” He waited. The boys did not answer. “Did they?” The younger boy said, “No,” and the superintendent’s boy whined, “Let go.” “Wait. There was one boy with the wobblies who would not give up when they ran out of anununition. He had a revolver, and a few bullets left, and he ran out the back way and tried to get across the Chehalis. Now listen. He was only a few years older than you boys—five or six years, maybe. And this is what he did. He held off all those people. He said he’d surrender to the police, and Dale Hubbard kept on coming and Wesley said Stop. Stop or I’ll kill you.
Hubbard came on and Wesley killed him.” In the darkness Bert felt his mind awaken and the broad picture of what had happened formed clear and distinct. There had been trouble in town or the boys would not be out. They had been afraid of trouble or they would not have let out school. The people were not friendly or unfriendly, but confused and afraid.... They would have to start on. Someone would be out looking for these boys.
“This is what they did,” the old man said. “They took Wesley, they took this boy a little bit older than you boys, and locked him up with the others.
They beat him first, and broke his teeth. And this is what they did at night. They turned out all the lights in town. Then they went into the jail and dragged him out. They put him in a car and cut off his balls and took him back to the river.
He was a little bit older than you boys—not much older, and they did this to him. The business men did this. They took him to the bridge and put a rope around his neck and dropped him over. He didn’t die. They pulled him up again and dropped him again and still he didn’t die. Then they shot him—they shot him and left him hanging there.” They waited. Bert got up. “Did they tell you that?” the old man asked.
“Did they tell you that when they let you out of school?” The boys were shivering with cold and fear. Bert said, “Come on.
Someone will be looking for them.” The old man got to his feet. Bert said roughly, “You boys. Was there any trouble in town?” The older boy began to whine again. The other said blankly, “Trouble.” “Was there a fight?” “No.” “Nothing?” “No.” Then he said. “Only some handbills.” His heart leaped. “What about?” The boy said hesitantly, “They was progerman,” and the older one said, “Nobody read them.” “Why not?” “The boy scouts burnt them up.” He said to the old man, “There’s somebody left,” but the old man did not hear him. “Just a few years older,” the old man said.
Bert walked to the old man and pulled him around. “They’ll be out looking for these boys.” The old man said wearily, “Let them look. Let them look.” “You know what will happen if we send them back.” “A little older,” the old man said in anguish. “Just a few years. And this is what they did.” “They’ll be up here looking for them. If we send them back they’ll be looking for us.” The old man swayed on his feet. Bert pulled him roughly. “Snap out of it,” he said. The old man reached over and grabbed the older boy by the arm.
“How old are you?” The boy said, “Fifteen.” “Five years older. Four or five.” He did not release the boy. “They knocked out his teeth,” he said. “First. You hear me? You know how it feels?
You know what they did?” The boy began to cry.
Bert said, “Listen. Cool off. You know what they’ll do. If we send them back the whole town will be out here after us. And if they don’t come back....” Slowly the old man understood. He released the boy. Bert began to tremble. He would not say what was in his mind. One of the boys stirred, and be moved over near them. The old man said, “Maybe... Could we drag them along?” “They’ed hold us back.” The old man said, “If anything happened to them they’ed blame it on us. Then they’ed be against us. The whole town. The whole god damn working class.” Bert said, “It would have to be different.... As if they’ed fallen. Or the creek.” The old man did not answer him. Bert smiled into the darkness. “No,” he said. “But it’s what they’ed do.” The old man said nothing. “Think what they did to Wesley.” Bert picked up his rifle and pulled the old man by the shoulder.
“They knocked out his teeth,” he said softly. “They cut him up before they killed him.... And it would help us and hold them back.” They cut into the heavy brush. The old man said, “You don’t mean it.” “No. But it’s what they do.” The brush closed around them. The old man started to call back to the boys, but Bert stopped him. “They won’t know if we left or not. They’ll wait awhile.” They turned away from the stream, up the steep bank, digging their feet into the slippery soil. The rain had left the leaves cupped and soaking, and now that they began to climb the stiffness and fatigue came back. Night closed around them, dense and heavy as the brush itself, until there was nothing left of the world but the damp tangle of vines and stalks that trapped and held them, their heavy breathing, the sound of their feet in the moist leaves and soil. It grew colder after the rain stopped and they climbed into higher ground. The underbrush thinned out; the big trees were far apart.
At the top of the first ridge they rested again. The old man stretched out on the muddy soil, face downward, his forehead resting on his arm, his legs twisting under him. Below the ridge the valley was a gulf of darkness without boundaries, silent and empty and cold, but above them they could see the mountains, lines of darker shadow against the sky, and the strange gray light of the snow. Bert sat beside the old man, holding his rifle between his knees, looking out over the spread of company timber and the county of company towns. Somewhere in the darkness the boys were fumbling back home, people were looking for them, the crowds would gather. In the morning the hills would be crowded. Now he thought of someone still working in the guard-ridden town, getting out the handbills and telling the truth. The thought came back as he dozed. It was warm and reassuring. It came back and went away; it was like a light in the window of some friend’s house, seen and then lost again in the middle of a rainy and miserable night.
Robert Cantwell (1908-1975) was a novelist and critic born in Aberdeen, Washington. The Land of Plenty, Cantwell’s best-known novel, was recently reissued by Pharos Editions, with an introduction by the novelist Jess Walter. “Hills Around Centralia” appears here by arrangement with Mary Nelson of the Cantwell estate, who has generously granted permission for this republication.
Simple Pleasures: “Half-Full” Essays on the Everyday, the Common, and the Famously Mundane Charles Finn
1. ON WASHING THE DISHESThere are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes.
— Thích Nhất Hạnh It is 10:30 at night and I have waved the last of the guests goodbye, coated and shawled them, gently ushered them out the door. I have nodded to their well-wishes and thank yous, to their three-glass promises—Next time, our place!—hugged them, friends all, waving off their compliments, promising them the recipe for my bread. Now, back inside, door closed on the headlight-poked air, I turn the corner to the kitchen and roll up my sleeves.
As my wife clears the table, I fill both sink basins with hot water, adjusting the temperature to just below scalding. Out of all the sounds a house can make, this gush from the faucet is the most reassuring. As my wife brings the serving dishes, I fetch the tea mugs from the living room, and together we pile the pots and pans on the counter and put the leftovers away. The wine glasses, fingerprinted and ruby-kissed, are collected. We will clean these last.
With the sinks full, I slip the bowls and plates into their bath, guiding them under one by one. “The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality,” says the Vietnamese monk, Thích Nhất Hạnh.
In my hand is a gaudily-colored sponge with a wiry green bristle on one side.
In my other a thick bottle of dish soap with the picture of a bald, muscular man on its side. Florescent light flooding the scene, I tip the brawny fellow upside down and squeeze a citrus-scented blood from his head.
It feels good, this warm soapy water. This this. As I clean, my wife dries and puts away, and there is a warm feeling between us, more than just wine. Like co-conspirators we stand shoulder to shoulder, re-capping the evening, swapping Did you sees and Could you believes. With a towel draped over her shoulder, my wife fishes saucers from the rinse water, quick as a heron.
When she holds a plate up for inspection it’s as if she’s looking into a mirror.
Soft music plays in the background as the pile of dishes decreases. At the sink there is music too: the tiny chatter of forks mixing together, the click of plates. There’s the lovely almost dolphin-like squeak of my thumb on their clean soapy faces—a little chirp of approval. With a thumbnail, I scratch at a stubborn piece of food and think of the episodic travels the dishes make from cupboard to table to sink and back, to the weeks, sometimes months of darkness they endure, lying in wait for their next encounter with living hands and the good weight of hot food.
With the plates clean we move on to the pots and pans. More muscle, more scratching. Elbow grease removes all other grease and the corners of the casserole dishes get special attention. I pump more soap onto the sponge.
Now we come to the final blind groping, rooting on the bottom of the sink for that elusive spoon, the sunken sponge. Reaching my forearm through the gray water, I pull the colander-like plug, then watch the water’s slow decent, mesmerized by its spin, anticipating the vulgar gurgle when it empties away.