The Pits


by Claire Baiz


Uncle Saul stood at our kitchen table, uninvited and shirtless, squeezing a puckered mound of pallid flesh.

“Jesus H. Christ!” Cheerios rolled off Dad’s spoon.

Mom crossed herself. “Mother Mary and Joseph.”

“Now that we got the attention of Jesus’ family,” Saul pulled at his flank, “what the hell do you think this is?”

“Looks like you got some kind of tumor there, Saul.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Uncle Saul said.

While Dad braved Saul’s basement to locate a pup-tent-sized shirt for his half-brother to wear to the Emergency room, Mom fetched her cable knit sweater and the keys to the Corolla.

Uncle Saul waited in the kitchen. He held the mass out, two handed, like a mealy Big Mac, like he was expecting sympathy.

I bit at the last slice of dry toast. “Hey, Uncle Saul, will you pass me the strawberry jam?”

***

“Aren’t you gonna welcome me home?” Uncle Saul lifted his shirt at me. It looked like he’d been attacked by a Rottweiler and sewn back up by Tim Burton.

Uncle Saul thudded down the stairs one at a time, straining the handrail. “Fucker was the size of a muskmelon,” he said, not turning around. Mom followed him, toting a clear drawstring bag filled with pills and gauze.

***

Three days later, Uncle Saul’s grocery list appeared as usual, under the kitchen door. Along with the usual Nalley’s Chili, instant oatmeal and Tostitos, Saul requested four cases of peaches. Not four peaches. Four cases.

I heard Dad’s voice from the deep recline of his La-Z-Boy. “Sounds like Saul plans to shit himself to death.”

The next day, Mom let the fourth box of Georgia’s finest drop onto the kitchen counter. Dad followed her, pinching cardboard cases of Coors in both hands. He toed at a big box beside the front door. It had a UPS label and the word BlendMaster in diagonal letters on every surface, even the flaps.

Mom let out a weary sigh. “Take it down, Jess,” she said.

When I didn’t move, Dad chimed in. “You heard your mother.”

***

Uncle Saul was laid out on his K-Mart recliner, eyes three-quarters shut, mouth open. The coils from his space heater made the half of Saul’s body that wasn’t tinted blue by the TV set glow like a half-cooked salmon filet. The room smelled like pus, poop, and a thin layer of Pine Sol.

Under Uncle Saul’s hand, the TV remote had fallen to the floor.

I watched him all through Jeopardy and past the first commercial on Wheel of Fortune.

***

“Good God, you startled me!” Mom steadied herself on the countertop.

“I think Uncle Saul is dead,” I said, closing the kitchen door.

Mom wiped a clump of stray hair off her forehead. “Are you sure?”

***

Five minutes later, Dad stomped up the stairs. Ten minutes after that, Uncle Saul’s blender went off like a lawn mower in a gravel pit.

“Jesus H. CHRIST!” Dad, who’d just washed up after poking at his half-brother for signs of life, vaulted out of his easy chair.

Mom brandished a spatula. “If Saul wants to replace Hungry Man dinners with peach smoothies, Mickey,” she blocked Dad’s way, “let him. He’s got precious little pleasure left in this life.”

***

Three nights later, as we sat down to supper, a yellow Post-It shot out from under the kitchen door.

Please call a plumber.”

Dad lowered his head to the table.

Mom set me to fetch Phil McInnis from across the street.

“It’s been decades since I seen the big fella,” McInnis said as I pointed past the stack of emptied peach boxes, down the sick-smelling stairwell.

McInnis emerged an hour later, slimy Roto-Rooter in one hand, a forty-pound toolbox in the other.

“The ol’ bastard was puttin’ fruit bits down the disposer.” McInnis fanned the screen door on the landing to force in fresh air.

“Those pits are gonna clog up our entire sewer system!” Dad wailed.

“Ah, Mickey. No worries. Saul’s chuckin’ the fruit. He’s eatin’ the pits.”

Dad was speechless. Mom pressed a wad of cash into Mr. McInnis’s sludgy palm.

Dad flapped his arms as McInnis retreated. “That’s it. I’m goin’ down there and take that blender away.”

“Leave him alone,” Mom said.

Dad pulled at his right earlobe like it itched real bad.

“Look,” Mom gestured at the table and talked to Dad like he was four. “I’ve warmed our supper…tuna fish and potato chip casserole.”

“Saul’s gonna rot in that basement like them peaches,” Dad mumbled as he plopped into his captain’s chair. “I should have pried him out of that cellar two decades ago, when he had his one shot at romance.”

“Your brother? Romance?” Mom spooned a distracting dollop of beige food onto Dad’s plate.

I forced my lips shut, to keep the bite I’d just taken inside.

“Your Uncle Saul used to drive a hunnert-ton Caterpillar.” Dad used his fork like a front-end loader. “Down the Berkeley Pit empty,” Dad filled it with food. “Up the Berkeley Pit full.”

“Yeah, Dad, you told me.” Like a million times.

“You don’t know ’bout this.” Dad licked his fork. “One day I pulled up and I seen Saul, huffin’ up Pearl Street in ten inches of snow, wearin’ nothin’ but overalls and that goddamn Elmer Fudd cap. The bastard was half froze.” Dad shook his head. “That gal was so big she had to turn edgeways to get into the Union Hall.”

“What gal?” Mom asked, confused.

“Jesus.” Dad’s voice went up an octave. “Will you let me tell the goddamn story?”

Dad watched Mom swallow before he went on.

“Kendra Schottenheimer, that was her name. She ran the time clock outside the company trailer over at the Pit. She wrote up slackers who were too shit-faced to show, then she’d ram her ass into a wide-armed office chair and report anyone who spent more’n five minutes in the Port-a-Potty.” Dad half-suppressed a belch. “They had to move the trailer away from the Pit every few months to keep her from fallin’ in. God knows why Schottenheimer took to makin’ lunch for Saul—three bologna sandwiches on Wonder Bread, extra Miracle Whip, no lettuce. Ever’ day.”

Dad flipped his dry glass over, his signal for Mom to get a beer.

“Shame that Saul never brought her over to the house,” she said. “Maybe things could have been different—Jessica, you haven’t been excused.”

I sat back down.

Dad kept talking. “So, like I said, Saul trudges home after his shift, truckless. Claimed Schottenheimer’d quit. That big-lipped, beady-eyed gal would have been just the ticket for Saul.”

Mom popped the tab on Dad’s beer. “So why’d she quit?” she asked as she handed it to him.

“Saul said she got some kind of cancer, and that she was goin’ to Tee-a-wanna for a Mexican miracle cure. Saul said he knew somethin’ was wrong, cause on that last day, she let him inside the company trailer.” Dad had tuna between his teeth. “Coulda rocked over the edge and that would have been the end of ‘em.”

“So, anyways, Saul shivered out there in the driveway,and told me he gave Schottenheimer his pickup truck, so she could drive herself to Mexico.” Dad snorted. “A 1972 Chevy half-ton in exchange for two years of baloney sandwiches–and one hour in the goddamn company trailer?” He wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “What kinda cancer cure did they have in Mexico anyway—the tequila cure?”

“Laetrile. They called it the Peach Pit Cure,” Mom said. She went to the fridge and opened herself a cold one. “Schottenheimer—she never came back, did she?”

Before Dad could answer, the Blendmaster went off downstairs.

***

“Jessica!”

3:10 a.m. Prime time.

“Get down here,” Uncle Saul growled through the iron grate at the foot of my bed.

For the first time since I was four, I figured I had the upper hand on Uncle Saul. I stepped into sweatpants and Sketchers and felt my way to the back stairs.

Uncle Saul was in his recliner, backlit by a buzzing bathroom light.

The parts of Uncle Saul that weren’t draped in baggy clothing were covered in a gelatinous, eggy-smelling sweat. His thin shirt was rolled back, exposing the swollen scar.

Instead of lifting the TV remote, Uncle Saul held up a .38 special.

All my life, Uncle Saul specialized in silly games that turned dangerous. It made me furious that I felt sorry for him. “I’ve seen worse parts of you,” I said.

Uncle Saul used the barrel to motion up the stairs. “Drive me to the Berkeley Pit, Jess.”

I took one step forward.

“Back off,” he said, more miserable than unkind.

“Fine,” I replied, more unkind than miserable.

While Uncle Saul caught his breath on the landing, I fished the spare keys to Mom’s car out of Grandma’s sideboard. At least the night was warm. Butte in late April can be downright balmy—if there’s not a blizzard.

***

The Berkeley Pit is equal parts corporate abuse, campy musical, and horror movie. Back in 1982, Atlantic Richfield turned out the lights and turned off the pumps at the old Anaconda Company open pit copper mine. Now it’s Montana’s largest Superfund Site: a poisoned, 1,600-foot deep acid lake. Someday, it will spill over the edge and eat us Butte folks alive.

In the meantime, sightseers pay two bucks a pop to plod up a concrete tunnel to stare down at it and guess how much time we have left.

I parked in the unlit lot, beside a dusty Buick. Uncle Saul slammed the passenger door and lumbered toward the gate like an extra in a zombie movie, the .38 in one hand and a pair of yellow-coated bolt-cutters in the other.

He waited until I got close before he rattled the wrought iron. “Don’t pretend this is the first time you popped a lock, Miss Jess.”

Hand-over-hand, Uncle Saul made his way through the fifteen-foot inclined tunnel to the covered viewing stand, high above the Berkeley Pit.

Once he got there, he stood under the only light and waved his gun at the chain-link fence that kept kids, drunks and stupid people from going to the edge and falling in.

He outlined a rathole in the air. With the gun. I ducked when the gun barrel drifted my way.

“Cut here,” Uncle Saul said.

Those cutters made short work of the zinc-coated wire. When I kicked the metal lattice over the edge, it hit the water with more of a smack than a splash.

Uncle Saul lurched himself down on his haunches and let out a godawful belch. “Fuckin’ peach pits,” he said, pushing the cutters over the edge, on purpose. One of his brown vinyl slippers went with them, by accident.

Uncle Saul’s powder blue shirt stuck to the dark ooze around his sutures every time he inhaled. He squatted down and slid his .38 across the planked deck.

“I signed one of them TV wills, Jess. Everything I got, it’s yours.”

Everything he’s got? Seriously?

Uncle Saul squatted down. I heard the safety flip off before he slid the handgun across the planked deck.

I picked it up.

He poked himself between the eyes. “Right here…and don’t wing me, for Chrissake. They’ll never drag this poisoned pit. Do it. Then hurl the gun and run, girl.”

“This doesn’t make up for—”

“Yeah, I know…I’m mostly dead, anyways.” Saul shrugged. “How many times in your life you figure you’ll get to be kind and cruel at the same time?” Uncle Saul sucked air through his receded gums.

The raised gun felt oily and dense. Uncle Saul squinted and nodded.

My aim was better than either of us expected.The gunshot echoed, POP, Pop, pop off the rim of the Berkeley Pit. Uncle Saul’s hands went straight to where his crotch used to be.

For a long moment, he teetered, crouching and gushing before the caustic pool swallowed him hard.

I tossed my cookies over the edge. Then I tossed Uncle Saul’s gun in after him.

***

I was gulping down acrid air when a flashlight played crazy in the concrete tunnel. I dodged to keep the powdery beam off my feet.

“Harriet, this is Saunders up at the Pit. Looks like some kids busted into the town’s number one tourist attraction. Lock’s busted again. Thought I heard firecrakers, or a shot or something. Send a badge, will ya?”

Harriet’s dispatch orders amplified inside the access tunnel, covering the noise I made as I scrambled on the coin-op telescope. I grabbed the edge of the lookout roof and hoisted myself up.

“Jesus, Harriet…” I saw Saunders step toward the hole. “They cut the safety fence. I…I think someone might have fallen in. Aww, crap…” the old guard’s voice tightened. “This looks like blood.”

Above him, I pressed my cheek against the rough asphalt shingles.

“Saunders,” Harriet ordered, “get the hell out of there.”

The guard didn’t need to be told twice.

Neither did I. I squirmed off the far side of the bermed roof, shimmied over the turf that covered the arched tunnel and landed, soft-kneed, in a pile of forty-year-old slag.

Every kid in Butte knows where to get in and out of the Berkeley Pit. I took the turn around the scrapyard at a dead run, hopped over a stack of rolled-up wire and stayed low against the corrugated fence until I hit a burrow that had been worn slick and half-covered with used cans of Colt 45.

I dived under and ran like hell all the way back to the house.

I caught the screen door before it slammed, tiptoed into my bedroom and kicked my shoes under the bed ruffle. When I pulled the covers over my head, bits of brick red roofing stung my arms. I smelled almost as bad as Uncle Saul.

***

It took fifteen minutes for a cop to put his fists to our front door. “Police!”

Dad woke up cussing. “Look the fuck who’s here.”

Mom shushed him. “Get the door, Mickey. I’ll check on Jessica. For God’s sake, don’t say anything that might get you arrested.”

For an instant, the hall light cast a rakish shadow on my bed. My eyes went wide the second my door clicked closed. I threw off my blanket and mashed my ear on the keyhole.

“—Toyota, registered to you, parked up by the Pit,” I heard the cop say. “You’re sure your daughter is home? She’s in high school, isn’t she?”

“I checked. She’s in her room.” Mom kept her voice low.

Dad was, as always, loud. “You want the wife here to fry up some bacon and eggs? We could sit around the table and enjoy an early breakfast with Butte’s finest.”

Before the cop accepted the sarcastic offer, Mom said, “I think we ought to go check on Saul.”

***

I waited until I heard KOPR’s 6 a.m. farm report bounce off the bathroom tile.

I figured I should feel worse than I did, but I admit it: Saul-less, the basement was a creepy relief.

A single page had been laid out beside Uncle Saul’s stained kitchen sink, weighted by three worn half dollars. The paper had fancy lettering up top and a familiar signature on the witness line. Barry O’Hara, who delivered for Domino’s, a classmate of mine at Butte High, had witnessed the will.

Uncle Saul was true to his word: he left me “all his worldly goods.” So far, that meant a buck fifty in Franklin halves. When I lifted them, the As-Seen-on-TV will rolled up, revealing instructions written in Sharpie, on the back: Look under the sink.

Behind the dish soap and crusty yellow sponges were three rust-stained canvas bags, big as flour sacks and ten times as heavy.

I jabbed one with a kitchen knife, right below a lead weight seal. I wriggled two fingers in the hole and came out with an old quarter, two dimes and another Franklin half.

I laid the original coin paperweights back on Uncle Saul’s will before I sneaked back up to my bedroom.

***

“Jess, you’d better sit.” Mom slid her bacon onto Dad’s plate. “Saul —” Mom faltered, “last night — threw himself —” She pitched her dish into the sink and left.

Dad stood up and straddled Mom’s empty kitchen chair. “Me and the cops, we found Saul’s will. It smells like pepperoni, but I’m pretty sure it’s legal.” Dad’s tongue explored the inside of his mouth for leftovers. “Your Uncle Saul ever show you his junk… silver?”

“Junk silver?” I repeated.

“Bags of pre-1964 U.S. coins. Wouldn’t be surprised if they were worth twenty-five grand cash, up in Helena, at Wayne Miller Coin.”

Dad half stood. He wound up like he might deck me.

He gave my shoulder a firm push with his closed fist, all buddy-buddy. “I suppose it’s only fair, Jess.” He crouched so close I could smell crispy pig on his breath. “For Chrissake,” he whispered, “wipe down them shoes.”