BTS: Our Lady of Cleveland

“Our Lady of Cleveland”—Behind the Story

As mentioned in a previous Behind the Story, my research for the novella, Mistakes by the Lake, took me into the history of the Stockyards neighborhood. It’s a fascinating history: the Cleveland Union Stockyards began in the late 1800s and, by 1923, it annually processed over 1M hogs, 270K cattle and calves, 300K sheep and lambs; at one point, the Cleveland stockyards was the city’s third largest industry; the stockyards included a hotel and bar for farmers who traveled with their livestock (a similar bar ended up being a key location in Mistakes).*

A small article I found in an old Cleveland Press stayed with me, though. It told of a steer that “ran wild through West Side streets” before it was brought low by a police officer. (This sort of event was common, apparently, as confirmed by a friend, Cheryl LaRosa.) I dabbled with this idea for a bit, had a few half-fits and half-starts, but nothing worked so I set it aside.

I re-engaged the story by researching a bit more about the job of slaughtering all of this livestock, this exploration perhaps prompted by my father’s tale of a childhood field trip to a Cleveland slaughterhouse where he saw the whole process from beginning to end. I tend to imagine his trip went something like this:

Anyway, I sketched out a rough character who became Mart, the knocker. But I had no plan, no outline, no idea of plot or story. Just this character. So, I sat and wrote. I surprised myself, and Mart, twice within the first few pages: a steer refuses to go down and the Virgin Mary appears. Well, now, here were some fun elements to work with! When I began juxtaposing the events in the story with the 1954 World Series, I knew I was on to something I really wanted to write and get right.

This story originally appeared in Midwestern Gothic, winner of its inaugural Lake Prize. In a discussion with the editors, I wrote: “I admire the blue-collar workingman’s attitude of Cleveland … and that particular job in that particular industry was as blue-collar workingman as it could get. But I also wanted an industry that more or less died, that left little behind of its presence, and whose inevitable absence partially signaled a larger movement for the city as a whole. At one point, in the 1920s, say, Cleveland’s prosperity placed it as one of the nation’s largest cities. But by the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s there was an undeserved shift for such a grand city.… I wanted [this] story to capture that movement, that shift, on a number of levels.” I was honored to not only win the Lake Prize, but to have über-talented writer and judge, Ander Monson, write, “Work allows the story to access the headspace of the protagonist and his history and the many tensions operating on him at once. Get an interesting character, wind him up with a bunch of pressures and contexts, and let him go. Bravo.”

And, finally, an aside: When the Virgin Mary appeared to Mart and Jozef, I recollected how, as a kid, I had watched an old movie, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. While Mart and Jozef are no shepherd children, their miracle and that film (based on an apparent historical event) inspired the title.

*Some of this information comes from the exhaustively good Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (Van Tassel and Grabowski).

“Our Lady of Cleveland”—Excerpt

I heard the cracks of .22’s echo through the Stockyards, the other knockers finishing their early day with final shots. I trusted, had always trusted, the steel face of my great hammer. I needed the physicality of the stroke, had to feel my large hands and swollen forearms, my tensing shoulders and my thick legs, had to feel each and every part of my body vibrate with exertion and with the impact of hammer against skull. And it’s how I spent my anger and loss. A .22 felt weak and empty, and even those knockers who’d switched to the rifle sometimes missed and the beast would crash into the sides of the chute, exciting the others, causing the brief panic that we would all be overrun, until a second report finished the job.

The white- and brown-headed steer in front of me was the last before the game, the game the reason we were released early today, the game I hoped would be a sign. Its large eyes stared at me blankly, accepting its fate. The ancient blisters rasped against the wood handle as I reloaded the sledge. I cocked my arms: batter up. I felt like Wertz digging in; early word was he was having a helluva day.

I inhaled as I brought the sledge first low and then behind, my lungs filled with a mix of dirt and manure and blood and sweat, and I swung for the last time today, felt my muscles tense and then explode in unison as I released my breath, a loud “Paahhhh!” escaping my puffed cheeks as the hammer’s hard steel connected forcefully with the steer’s hard-then-hammer-softened forehead, the contact sending a rattling up the handle, through my arms, to my shoulders. I loved that feeling. I loved my job.

Usually a steer dropped immediately, easily stunned, often dead. This steer stayed standing, shook its head and blinked, bored with me.

Jozef, a Czechoslovakian like me—he had lived two towns over, married my cousin Edita, knew my grief over Isabel—returned from chaining and dragging the previous steer to the cutter and the bloodletting. “Finish, Mart. David says it’s 2-2.” David was one of the urban cowboys who led the steers into their pens and from their pens down the chutes to me and the other knockers. We’d watch the rest of the game at Jozef’s, thirty of us gathered tightly on his porch. He and six of his neighbors had gone in together to buy a television set, passed it around on a daily basis, each getting a turn to have the outside world brought inside his home. And today was the first game of the World Series.

“I—”

“Let’s go,” Jozef said. “Eighth inning’s about to start.”

“I already—” But I didn’t know what to say.

I heard other knockers locking their rifles away in the other room, heard gates opening and closing, heard the sounds of the abattoir shutting down, heard the talk of the Indians winding up. At this job for twenty-plus years, never had a steer withstand my assault. Maybe my swings were weaker, maybe I couldn’t last the whole day, maybe I’d have to switch to the .22. I nodded dumbly at Jozef, grasped the handle, swung again, hard enough to shatter brick. Nothing. The steer shook its head again, blinked, waited for more. I breathed nervously, felt a pinch in my chest.

Jozef gasped and as I readied another swing he grasped the handle and stopped me. He pointed. “Look.” His finger traced the outline of a brown patch that wound its way over the face of the steer, around its right eye.

“I don’t—” I said.

“Look.” Jozef pointed again, traced again. “Don’t you see?”

The Cleveland Press had been running versions of Rorschach-like inkblots in its pages, inviting readers to submit their interpretations. It was entertaining, what people saw. Butterflies, trees, wolves, flowers, bats, spread animal hides. Jozef was testing me.

I sat the sledge’s head on the ground, my hand resting on the handle’s end, and I studied the steer’s face, followed the pattern’s outline with my eyes, searching. On the nose, a bit off-center, what appeared to be a mouth, lips spread in a simple smile; slightly up from that, the tip of a delicate nose; on the forehead, where twice I’d struck, the outline of an eye mirrored the steer’s own right eye; surrounding the face, the soft female face, and running down below to the dewlap, what appeared to be either long hair or a veil. It was the very likeness of the Virgin Mary.

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