Here’s one of my favorite scenes, from an area I researched in great detail, more like up close and personal. Pietro Rocca has left the wife he deceived and their two children back in Italy while he comes to terms with his new identity in America—that of Pete Montagna.
A distinctive blend of musty earth and ripe perspiration inundated the dry room of Anaconda Copper Mining’s premier facility as men from The Speculator’s first shift stripped off their silicone-laden blue overalls and dank long johns before jockeying for one of the eight shower positions. Pete Montagna stood under the hot water and worked a thick bar of Lava Soap into his ropey frame. With eyes squeezed to the showerhead, he let its unforgiving needles pound dust and grime from his tired muscles, and then turned to brace himself for a final assault before relinquishing the water to an impatient Pole.
“Gave up my real name, just like you probably did, and a lot of others,” the man told Pete when they first met. “Good names but too damn hard for these thick Americans to pronounce.”
Or, too damn revealing, Pete thought. He preferred the language of America unless he was in the company of Northern Italians. Most of them came to America before The Great War but still remembered Pete’s Piemontese dialect, a bastardization of French and Italian. “Speak the common language of the streets,” Leo had told him. “That way nobody can make a monkey outta you.” Not that Pete still counted on Leo’s advice.
While Pete was buttoning up his cropped union suit, Leo sauntered up to the washbasin, swiped one hand across the foggy mirror, and peered at his image, a face on the verge of losing its angular structure. With a snap of his trouser suspenders Leo said, “I got Lady Luck with me today.”
“Well I got second thoughts so count me out,” Pete replied, knotting a striped tie into his shirt collar.
“Honey, that’s what you need.”
“Honey can’t cure my problems.”
“What the hell, Pete. You did good last payday.”
“Yeah, but I gave it back on Wednesday.”
“So why work if you can’t play. We been busting our chops all week.”
“No, we been busting our chops three days,” Pete said, referring to the job sharing that kept the Butte miners working part time for daily wages of five dollars and forty-one cents.
“I gotta take a piss,” Leo said, “so don’t leave without me.”
Pete dawdled at the mirror, slicking back his hair and grooming a recently acquired mustache that covered the scar on his upper lip. Women still considered him handsome, or so they said.
A stocky man, his face sun-deprived from too many years underground, shuffled up to Pete and placed a gnarled hand on his shoulder. “How ‘bout coming home with me,” Tony Coronna said, projecting a broad smile under his droopy gray mustache. “My Donatella, she’s fixing spiedino and there’s some real good vino, straight from Meaderville.”
Wine from Meaderville sounded almost as good as wine from Faiallo, but Tony’s invitation came with a catch: a daughter twenty-four and ready for marriage. For a brief, delicious moment Pete pictured the Coronna kitchen: tantalizing strings of cheesy pasta simmering in beef broth, the scent of garlic softening in olive oil. Basta! He clutched his mid-section and feigned a painful cramp. “Grazie, Tony, but not today. I’m dealing with this stomach problem.”
Tony’s smile faded. “Sure, paesano, catch you next time.”
Pete grabbed his lunch bucket and tight roll of dungarees but before he could escape out the door, Leo yipped at his heels like some pesky mutt. They walked into a warm summer breeze caressing Butte’s summit and while Leo cupped his hand to light a cigarette, Pete surveyed the sprawling town below. Quiet from where they stood on The Hill. But down below Boisterous Butte never slept, thanks to revenue from an abundant supply of copper, silver, gold, lead, and manganese. Leo was on his third match when Pete lifted his head to the distant mountains. Their snow-covered peaks made a nice picture but Montana’s jewels couldn’t compare to his native Alps. A glow finally appeared at the end of Leo’s cigarette. He took a few drags and tipped his hat to The Spec’s head frame, a gallows supporting cables that raised and lowered men, equipment, dynamite, timbers, and ore cars three thousand feet into the unforgiving earth.
Pete fell into step with Leo and six other co-workers. They started the long downhill trek, passing the Little Minah and other mines intermingled with sooty, frame cottages and two-story flats perched above stonewalled streets. One by one the men drifted off until only Pete and Leo were left to trudge the unpaved portion of Main Street. At the modest white frame church of St. Lawrence O’Toole, Pete made the sign of the cross, a routine he’d begun with his first day on the job.
“You shoulda never started that,” Leo said.
“Bullshit, what are the odds?”
“No shit, just playing against the odds. Picture us in The Spec’s hellhole, slaving away on the day you forget to bless yourself.” He clashed an imaginary set of cymbals. “POW!”
“And what about you: saluting that damn head frame every time we leave.”
“It’s a habit, and nothing else.”
“The same goes for me,” Pete said. “One thing’s for sure: I ain’t superstitious.”
“Well, maybe you oughta be.”
“As if superstition ever brought you any luck.”
“I’m here, ain’t I?”
“So’m I, but luck didn’t get me here.”
“That’s right. It was me, Leo Arnetti.” He thumped his fingertips to his chest. “And don’t you forget it. What’s more, I got you this job, showed you how to talk like a real American.”
“How to lose like one too. And don’t get me started on America’s lousy economy.”
So far Pete’s luck had been nothing but bad, same as Leo’s, damn. When they weren’t mining copper or listening to old-timers extol the good old days—before The Company rid itself of the union—Leo talked him into panning for gold or taking chances on every conceivable game in Butte. And Pete seldom balked.
After they passed the Lexington, Leo brought up Tony Coronna. “You shoulda gone with him for some of that Meaderville wine, for some of Donatella too.”
“That ain’t funny Leo.”
“Ooh-h that Donatella. She’s got … whatchamacallit … the hots for you.”
“Basta! I’m a married man.”
“Not in America. Not to these people. Better they don’t know the real you. And don’t forget your godfather. Giovanni ain’t about to forgive or forget.”
“If God is good, Giovanni’s dead. And I’m going back home, just as soon as I get enough money.”
“Then what the hell are we waiting for, partner.” Leo draped his arm around Pete’s shoulder, pushing him where he didn’t need to go.
“First things first,” Pete said, moving away from Leo’s grip.
The two men took a right on Summit and dropped off their dirty clothes at Adie Turner’s aging three-story Victorian. Eight dollars a week bought them separate sleeping rooms, one bathroom shared with ten other men, laundry service, and three meals daily, including a full lunch bucket on workdays. Pete had tried rooming with Leo but that didn’t last. Not with Leo helping himself to Pete’s money and sneaking in floozies after dark.
As they continued down Main Street, commercial buildings outnumbered the houses and concrete replaced the dirt road. When the street traffic picked up, Pete moved onto the sidewalk and wiped dust from his leather high tops.
“Dammit, not now,” Leo said, kicking up more dust. “We only got a couple more blocks to go.” He stuck his hands in his trouser pockets, jiggled coins to accompany the beat of his footsteps.
Leo the Loser: all talk and no show. And Pete always wound up on the losing end. Getting out of Butte meant first getting rid of Leo.
When they neared Uptown Butte, Prohibition saloons passed as soft drink parlors and billiard parlors stacked hustlers against greenhorns, a lesson Pete had learned the hard way. “My stomach’s turning somersaults,” he said. “We shoulda grabbed a sandwich back at Adie’s.”
“As if I need one more glob of navy beans on stale bread,” Leo said. “Just you wait, tonight we’re gonna feast on thick, juicy steaks.”
They eased into the swelling ranks of businessmen, professionals, skilled craftsman, teamsters, laborers, uppity matrons, bored housewives, and all varieties of miners. Vehicles crowding the streets and threatening pedestrians prompted Leo to lift his middle finger to a Model T rolling through the stop sign. “A car, that’s what we need. Then we’d show those bastards a thing or two.”
Not with my winnings, Pete thought. His getaway money dried up after Leo needed a loan to repay old debts, a loan he had yet to repay. After they turned on Broadway the pace slowed down while Leo lit another cigarette. At Honey’s Soft Drink Parlor, Pete hesitated at the beveled glass door.
“Now what?” Leo asked.
“I ain’t exactly in a rush to throw my hard-earned money away.”
“In that case we drink first.” Leo reached around Pete and turned the sticky knob. “And then we play to win.”
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