Colorado Review Editorial Assistant (and Pennsylvania native) Derek Askey interviews Martin Cozza about his story “Pennsylvania Polka,” which appeared in the Summer 2010 issue (an excerpt follows this interview)
Derek Askey: Among so many other things, what “Pennsylvania Polka” does well is capture (and in many ways hinges upon) its setting. What prompted the decision to “create” the town of Black Hand, complete with the history of its name, a history that is fictionalized but also based on real events near your hometown of New Castle, Pennsylvania?
Martin Cozza: I can’t say it started as a “decision” to create the town of Black Hand, more just my intuitive response to working with this material. I’m interested in my hometown, the way most people are, but I think that the period in which I was growing up there (I graduated high school in 1982) is especially interesting, and not just to me, because it’s when the steel industry was dying in western Pennsylvania and a lot of people were thrown out of work and a lot of the infrastructure was rusting and falling apart (as it still is). It’s a good index of all of the distressing economic changes—the decline of manufacturing, the decline of the middle class—that have taken place over the last few decades in the US. I remember a lot of weddings in those years—big, Catholic weddings—as a bunch of my cousins were older than me and were getting to marrying age. So I started to write about a wedding, and the sort of foibles that lay behind the scenes in any wedding, and the town really just entered the story of its own accord. It really was impossible to keep it out. What became super clear to me as I wrote is that these characters and their lives are strongly inflected by the time and place they find themselves in. I think that’s true of all characters, of course, and that maybe it isn’t honored in contemporary fiction as much as it should be. The name “Black Hand” comes, as you imply, from some mobsters who were active in and around my hometown of New Castle in the early part of the twentieth century. I like it because it’s authentic to the setting, but also because I think it’s just a cool name.
DA: The editor’s notes describe this story as “filmically perspected,” a description that becomes apparent almost immediately, when the narrator pulls back and states, “From above you could see that the church was shaped like a thick cross.” Do you feel that jumping genres—from literature to cinema, in this case—is a useful means of thinking about or composing art? Did you think of “Pennsylvania Polka” in terms of a camera’s perspective?
MC: I suppose it’s almost impossible to not think in terms of a camera’s perspective anymore. We’ve all seen that shot in which the camera pulls back from a scene and rises up above it to show the characters within their broader surroundings, and having seen such shots in movies and TV commercials had to have played a part in allowing me to visualize the scene from above. But I think I made that leap—intuitively again, not really as a conscious decision—because the time and place had such a strong bearing on what was going on in these characters’ lives and on the challenges they were facing that it felt wrong for the POV to stay too close to them. What was going on outside of them, and outside of the church, was at least as important as what was going on inside the church and inside the consciousnesses of the characters. The story would have been impoverished, and its “meaning,” such as it is, quite constrained if I’d ignored the surrounding decay of the town. So I guess I think it was a technique that grew organically out of this material and is appropriate to the material, working to wring the utmost out of this material, rather than as a technique I think should be applied more broadly in the making of art.
DA: I love the way the Steelers function in this story, as it feels so appropriate to the polkas-and-postindustrial setting: Terri uses them to explain to Johannes where she is from; the Steelers’ fight song is revisited throughout; even the car-smashers in the beginning are wearing Steelers scarves. How do you see the Steelers working thematically throughout the story, or was this just an inevitable piece of the setting? Perhaps more importantly, how do you feel about their Super Bowl chances this year?
MC: You just can’t write about this time and place and these people and leave out the Steelers. Can’t be done. I’m always struck any time I go back home that, if it’s during football season, you can’t swing a cat without hitting somebody wearing something with a Steelers logo on it. But especially in this period—late 70s, early 80s—when the Steelers were a dynasty and a very important source of pride for the people in the region, the significance of Steeler pride went way beyond football. You have to think about what it felt like for a region that was so proud of its identity as the world’s leading producer of steel, as the backbone of the country, to be in steep decline. Unemployment in my home county was very high—I remember hearing at the time that it was 25 percent, but I’ve never verified that—and the whole region, Pittsburgh itself and all the little steel towns up and down all the rivers, was reeling. To have a football team, named after steel, no less, rise out of the rubble and seem to conquer the world in your name was a really powerful catharsis. Problem was, it was a symbolic conquest and not a real one. I mean, the Steelers won four Super Bowls and the steel industry still tanked. In my hometown, New Castle, all the mills, huge buildings, are still standing there, mostly empty.
As for the Steelers’ chances this year, of course I think they’re going to win the Super Bowl. The defense isn’t quite as dominating as it’s been the past few years, but the offense is gritty and (almost) always finds a way to win. So get your Terrible Towel warmed up.
DA: Curtis’s violence at the end of the story is shocking and unsettling. Did you have any reservations about taking the story in such a dark turn? Did you know this was where the story was going all along, or was it in the process of drafting/revision that it came about?
MC: I didn’t have any reservations, as this turn of events seemed inevitable to me, given all of the cues the story was giving me about itself right from the beginning. I mean, having Curtis first appear in the story as someone with a head wound caused by wayward shotgun pellets, which had “made him mean,” is sort of like the proverbial gun on the mantel—it had better go off before the story is over. Also, the crowd of people smashing a Japanese car with a sledgehammer—an actual memory of mine, and the sort of thing that went on at this time out of the frustration and pain of losing steel jobs to Japan—seemed ominous to me, a surfacing of the anger and the tendency toward violence that seemed to be just below the surface all the time. Having Curtis witness the car-smashing and become fascinated with it wasn’t in the earliest drafts of the story, but it seemed totally authentic and organic to the story when I thought of it, and was just the sort of thing that might drive his violent tendencies out into the open. So yes, I knew this was where the story was going from pretty early on, but because it was clear to me that it was where the story wanted to go, not because it’s where I wanted the story to go.
DA: This story recently earned the distinction of being selected by Heidi Pitlor as a distinguished short story for 2011 edition of the Best American Short Stories series. What was your reaction to this? Are Best American or the other high-profile anthologies something you think about when you publish your work?
MC: Believe it or not, your asking me this question was the first I’d heard of the story being chosen. My reaction: very surprised, and thrilled. It’s a wonderful honor and I’m very happy about it. I can’t say I think about such things when writing or rewriting, but after publishing something, of course it crosses my mind. I begin to hope for some recognition of the work I put so much time and care into. It’s the first story of mine to be recognized in this way, and I hope it prompts more people to look for the story and read it—and while they’re at it, to read the rest of the issue and maybe seek out the Colorado Review and all of the terrific, distinctive writers you guys publish.
Excerpt from “Pennsylvania Polka”
The wedding that was about to begin was not a travesty to Catholics, as some people might think it would be. The maid of honor came up the aisle in the slide-step the organist had taught her—right, stop; left, stop—then she rushed, lost the rhythm, and had to wait for the hymn to catch up. Next came the bride, Terri Donati, a drapery of white in the vestibule doorway. She was big, eight months pregnant and tall, and she loved the thought of being eight months pregnant in her wedding pictures. She imagined herself looking through them someday with her grown-up child and the two of them screaming with laughter. She stepped out under the high, vaulted ceiling of the church and felt the space expand around her. She felt like a float in a parade.
Ahead was her groom, Denny Redmond, long-haired and skinny, rigid with effort in his tight white tux, like he expected a ball to come flying at him. Beside him, what appeared to be Denny again, but younger and smaller in another white tux—Curtis, his brother, the best man. Curtis fingered a dip in his forehead where Denny had shot him with a shotgun he thought wasn’t loaded. Most of the buckshot missed Curtis and shattered the tv, but a mass of pellets had struck him near the temple, piercing his skull and putting pressure on the surface of his brain. This had happened two full months ago, and Curtis had recovered, but the injury had made him mean.
At the altar Father Gus stood in his vestments, holding his arms out wide. Behind him a large Jesus hung on the cross, eyes cast down in a fixed, grave expression. It reminded Terri of the look Denny had just given her—part agony, part pity, part shame. Jesus had his gut sucked in, his ribs poking out, and a huge red gash in his side. He looked bad.
From above you could see that the church was shaped like a thick cross, with Terri and Denny standing at the intersection, facing the altar with the long aisle at their backs. The white ceiling paint was peeling up here, and a chunk of it dropped and spun, landing with a tick on an empty pew.
The falling paint exposed cracks in the plaster, but up through the cracks, in the dark cavity between ceiling and roof, the aged beams were still strong. On top of the beams lay the roof planks, tightly together, and on the planks lay the slates, and the slates held a layer of snow, peppered with black bits of soot from the chimney. Past the stone parapet and the edge of the roof ran the street down below. Across the street lay the half-filled church parking lot, and behind it another parking lot, empty, with its faded sign, Park ’n’ Shop, lying flat on its back on top of the snow. This lot used to fill up quickly on Saturdays, but now most of the stores in downtown Black Hand were closed. The town, Black Hand, Pennsylvania, was named after mobsters, the Black Hand Society, who once murdered a deputy way back in the woods by stabbing him in the stomach with stiletto knives. They dipped his hand in a bucket of tar and left him, and it became a famous crime. Some people said that the tar must have stood for their own dark Calabrese skin, or for stains from the coal mines where some of them worked. Today some people worried that the gang still existed, but most people had enough other worries.
In one corner of the Park ’n’ Shop lot, a crowd had gathered around a small car. Some men were lined up, taking turns bashing it with a sledgehammer. Each one would step up and swing, whamp, then hoots and cheers would go up. On the sidewalk a man strutted up and down, hands cupped to his mouth, shouting in a hoarse voice, “Smash a Japanese car! One dollar!”
The people who passed were drawn toward the car. Women drifted to the circle of spectators, and men stepped to the end of the slow-snaking line. They were dark figures against white snow, spotted with fluorescent orange caps and the broad gold stripes of Steelers scarves. A man climbed onto the hood of the car, set his feet wide apart, raised the sledgehammer high, and paused in this triangular pose. Then he brought the hammer down on the roof, whamp, with the exact stroke that his grandfather had used when laying train tracks and that his father had used in the die shop where he worked. This whamp on the roof was loud, and it echoed and carried the one short block to the Kuskuskie River, which cut a valley between buildings downtown. The sound, a wave in the air, wound with the river through the downtown, mingling with car noise and losing volume as it went, until it was no longer audible, but still existed, and passed under an iron bridge and sifted, like the river, around the stone pilings that stood like stepping-stones where the old bridge used to be. It crossed a rail yard and bounced against the mile-long side of Black Hand Sheet & Tube, where it finally disintegrated, colliding with sounds of crashing glass as children threw stones at the factory windows.
In the year after high school, Terri still lived at home, alone with her mother. Her father had died years before. She argued with her mother more and more, over any little thing, but on some nights they still baked banana bread or cookies together. She still worked the cash register at For Pet’s Sake, where she’d started part-time as a high school senior. She still dated Denny Redmond, who’d been her boyfriend since junior year, and made out with him in his Mustang II in their regular way—she slipping an arm around his neck and pulling him toward her, running a finger along his sketchy mustache, and he with limp kisses and a too-soft tongue, his hand moving in slow circles on her stomach, too shy to stray from there. She still liked how he looked in faded jeans and suede sneakers, and was sure that he had a good heart, but she worried about settling for Denny when she hadn’t tried anyone else or seen the world. With Denny and their friends, too young to go to bars, she drank beer in the woods, even on cold nights when holding a beer bottle nearly froze her hands. With her cousin Jeanine she made macramé or rolled long snakes of bread dough and braided them into wreaths, then baked them and shellacked them and hung them on the wall with a sprig of some kind of weed.
One morning in winter, in her little orange Vega, she shut off her engine in front of the pet store and leaned back against the headrest. She dreaded going in, being hit with the smell of cedar chips and pee. She knew she’d stop noticing the smell after a half hour or so, and this disgusted her even more. There might be ten customers all day, and she’d ring them up at the register, and go around to all the cages and add water to the bottles, a job a sixth-grader could do.
Terri had thought that when she graduated from high school she’d find a better job with the typing and shorthand she’d taken. But in almost a year she hadn’t found anything. When her parents were young it was easy to find good jobs in Black Hand, but she’d gone as far as Youngstown, across the Ohio line, and still turned up nothing better than For Pet’s Sake.
In the pet store parking lot, in her car, she turned the rearview mirror and saw her own eyes and the bridge of her nose. “Shit,” she said, but her eyes and the bridge of her nose didn’t move, didn’t even wrinkle when she spoke. “For pets suck, for pets suck, for pets suck,” she said. The eyes in the mirror were steady and unafraid. They weren’t the eyes of Denny Redmond’s girlfriend, or the cashier at a pet store, or of someone whose mother called her a little snot.
Two weeks later, she folded down the back seat of the Vega, filled the hatchback with records, posters, a duffel bag of clothes, a sleeping bag, and a rattan chair. She put her big spider plant up front next to her. Everyone said there were jobs down in Texas, and some people she knew—the Gileses, who’d been their neighbors since she was born—had moved there a few years before. The night before she left, Denny had cried for hours as they sat together, talking in the front seat of his car. He ended with his face in her lap, his eyes and nose running, leaving wet spots on the thighs of her jeans. She ran her fingers in his hair, kissed the back of his neck and almost said she would stay.
The next morning, she buckled her seat belt, unusual for her, and let her mother lean in the car window and kiss her goodbye. They each wiped tears from the other’s cheek, then she drove off, driving for two days, singing loudly with the radio and rolling down the windows when, heading south, she crossed from March winter into March spring.
In Fort Worth, Texas, she stayed for two weeks with the Gileses in their split-level house. There were jobs in Texas—she found one on the eighth day, as a secretary at an engineering company, then she got an apartment near the airport, in a complex owned by a friend of Mr. Giles. Mrs. Giles lent her a bed and gave her two old office chairs and a huge, dented metal desk. From her apartment she could step through a sliding glass door onto a small deck and look down on her Vega in the parking lot or out at the highway cloverleaf or at the high-tension wires on steel scaffolds that marched into the flat distance. She hung her spider plant near the glass door, in a macramé hanger Jeanine had made, and slid the metal desk under it to be her kitchen table.
In her second full week at her job, the youngest engineer, Johannes, who was visiting for a few months from the company headquarters in Holland, stopped beside her chair and said, “Could we have a meal, perhaps, together? There is a fish restaurant.” He had flowing blond hair and correct English, and always wore designer jeans. At the restaurant, he ordered halibut for them both, and they drank white wine, which to her tasted acrid, but which she pretended to like. She didn’t mind the long pauses in their conversations, or, later, the bony feel of his arms. She was ready for this. When she kissed him she tasted the delicate flavor of halibut, which was comforting, his mouth tasting just like her own.
There, in Fort Worth, Texas, the next morning, this skinny Dutch man, Johannes, who pronounced t’s to perfection, sat by the dent in the side of her metal desk, sipping the tea she’d made in her hot pot. The leaves of her spider plant splayed above his head, some with offshoots shaped like fireworks at their ends. She could follow him in her car to his motel, he was saying, straight from work, if she wanted, any day next week. “I will drive slowly,” he said, “so you can follow. You will not get lost. I will put on the turn signal far in advance of any turns.”
Johannes had a cleft chin and pointy nose, but in his build he resembled Denny, with a small butt and long, skinny arms. On that first night with him, she had lain there, short of breath, and wriggled under his thin frame. She had had sex twice before—both times with Todd Zimursky, a second-string fullback, before she met Denny—and had ended up with bruises on her thighs where Todd had clamped his hands. This time she was giddy, looking up at the dark ceiling and thinking here she was in an apartment in Texas, drunk on wine, with a foreign man heaving over her, groaning into her neck.
The next Monday after work she followed Johannes out of the parking lot behind De Bauw Products. In the large, tinted windows of their office building she glimpsed her rusty Vega, decrepit behind his rented Reliant K.
At the Claymore Motel, Johannes seemed nervous, showing her the swimming pool and the game room before taking her to his door. “It is not beautiful,” he said as he turned the key in the lock. In his room, cheerless with white walls, they sat on the perfectly made bed and looked at their hands until they started to kiss. Her kissing was practiced, aggressive, but Johannes’s lips, unlike Denny’s, pressed back, pushed her gently down to the pillow. Sober this time, her mind raced, and she remembered Todd Zimursky saying, “Shake it up—you know, make love to me,” which didn’t help her at all to know what to do. Afterward, laughing, she pulled Johannes into the game room, where she destroyed him in air hockey, a game he’d never played before.
For a few weeks they saw each other most days after work. She liked the blond hairs that grew high up on his cheeks, near his eyes, and covered his forearms and made his wrists look thick and strong. But they still had long pauses in their conversations, and the more they tried to break them, the longer the silences grew. She told him about where she came from, a little town outside of Pittsburgh. “You know, the Steelers,” she’d said, but he didn’t reply. “You know. Super Bowl Nine, mighty fine, Super Bowl Ten, did it again.” He nodded a little. At her place she’d turn on the tv to watch M*A*S*H or Fantasy Island, and Johannes would pay attention for a minute or two, then rustle through the newspaper he’d brought. She slept in his room a few times, but he was afraid the motel would find out and charge extra, and he’d get in trouble with the company. Once when she called his name from the bathroom, he said, “Shh!” then whispered, “Please. You are loud.”
She was relieved when he called her at home the next day and said they should “maybe not meet, for a time.” “Yeah,” she said. “It’s . . . yeah. Weird.” He had to leave soon anyway, to go back to Holland, and it just might be easier this way.
After he’d gone, her period didn’t come. Her breasts got so sore that she flinched in the shower if the water hit her nipples. The day she found out she was pregnant for sure—from a nurse in a storefront clinic, who smiled and said robotically, “It’s yes”—she skipped work and drove around town in a panic. At first she couldn’t get a deep enough breath. Finally, at a red light, after ten quick huffs, she breathed in slowly and steadied herself from there. She turned the radio dial through all of the stations, but the songs and commercials seemed shallow, made for somebody having a usual day, dropping a letter in a mailbox or walking through a door. She ended up at the zoo, where she watched a group of fifth- or sixth-grade girls huddle in a circle, tittering, then break apart and run. Terri cried, seeing this. She cried again seeing baboon mothers with babies hanging from their necks. The mothers clambered easily over rocks and logs, and the babies swung against their chests, trusting the mothers, and the mothers trusted themselves.
Terri told no one back home—not even Jeanine, who she knew wouldn’t keep it to herself. She’d heard stories, rumors really, of women getting abortions. She remembered Tracy Barone, in front of her locker, telling a bunch of girls about her cousin. “It hurt like hell,” she said. “She told me she just kept screaming.” To Terri, an abortion seemed impossibly remote—just a word, something from the network news. She tried to think about it, but always wound up thinking about a baby instead. She knew what that was. A baby would smile and barf, and as sick with fear as it made her, she knew she would have it.
She looked through a book her mother had given her, The Catholic Youth’s Guide to Life and Love, but it was about dating and sex, not babies. She went to mass at a church called St. Aloysius, a saint she’d never heard of and whose name she wasn’t sure how to pronounce. The mass was exactly the same as at home, and it was comforting to know the routine, to say the responses she knew by heart in unison with all of those strangers, Texans. “Lord have mercy,” they all said together. “Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.” After mass, she waited in line for confession, but when she got to the front of the line and heard the hissing whispers in the booth, she grew scared of what the priest might say and walked out.
She wrote twice to Johannes and heard nothing back. She scratched out his address in her book, first with horizontal lines, then vertical, then circles, obliterating it. She cried as she did this. Later, she asked around at work for his address and wrote it down again. She felt nauseated and took saltines wherever she went. The crumbs collected in her car and clung to her skirts. She went to bed early, so tired that her mind shut off instantly. When she started to show, she avoided the Gileses and told people at work about Denny, as if he were the father.
After another mass at St. Aloysius, she made herself go through with confession. Kneeling in the dark confessional, with her face up close to the wicker screen—inches, she knew, from the priest’s tilted head—she told him that she had had “intercourse” and was going to “have a child.” She could smell his aftershave, faintly medicinal, through the screen. “Oh my,” he muttered, then he quickly asked questions, alarmed but calling her “dear.” Her whole story spilled out in hard whispers, and the priest took a heavy breath, then asked if she’d like him to call her parish back home. “No!” she said, breaking her whisper. A dark blot appeared at the edge of the screen—his thumb?—and he said, “You don’t have to do this alone, dear.”
For her penance she said three Hail Marys and one Glory Be and concentrated on what the priest had said—“You don’t have to do this alone.” She closed her eyes and saw herself in her little apartment, sitting pregnant in bed in the glow of the tv, eating saltines. If she were home, she knew, her mother would fuss over her. She’d let her sleep late and tuck pillows under her knees. Jeanine would come over with pairs of tiny socks. And Denny would rub her shoulders, listen to her stomach, feel the kicks. He’d build a sandbox from the planks they kept in the rafters of their garage. One day, he’d take the baby from her arms and bounce it, brush his mustache back and forth across its cheek.
When she stepped out of the church it was like coming out of a movie—she was startled to still be in Texas.
To read the rest of this story, purchase the Summer 2010 issue of Colorado here.
Martin Cozza’s fiction has appeared in the Missouri Review, Columbia, Massachusetts Review, Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere, and has been anthologized in Best American Fantasy 3. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been a resident at Yaddo. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and children.