Blue Collars, a compelling story about growing up during the late 1950s and 1960s in a New Bedford, Massachusetts working-class family, by writer and artist Catherine McLaughlin will be published by Spinner Publications in April. Check out the excerpt below and be sure to follow Catherine on GoodReads and “Like” Blue Collars on Facebook to stay up to date on its release and any related news.
“Coffee. I need coffee,” Molly said.
“I’ll get it,” I said eagerly.
“Ma, I can’t stand getting up at the crack of dawn for these swimming lessons. I’m tired all day.”
“Go to bed earlier, then,” Ma said.
Molly shot her a look but said nothing.
“Besides,” Ma said, “it’s only for a few more weeks.”
I poured the cold coffee, adding sugar and evaporated milk, and handed Molly her mug. Skippy wandered in from the parlor, where he’d been playing happily, stacking wooden alphabet blocks on top of the set of Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedias that he’d emptied from the bookcase.
“Can I play?” Skippy asked.
“No, you’re too little,” I said.
“I want to play,” he repeated.
“You can play when you’re older.”
Ma could see a tantrum coming.
“Come on, Skippy. I’ll read you a story,” she said. Skippy ran to the parlor bookcase and returned with an ancient-looking, fat book.
“Which story?” Ma said.
“‘Cruel Paul,’” Skippy said and snuggled in the chair close to Ma’s ample bosom.
“Oh my God, not that one,” Molly said. “It’s a wonder it doesn’t give little Oedipus nightmares.”
Aunt Joan looked over my mother’s shoulder. “Which one is that?” Aunt Joan asked.
“Who’s Eddy Puss?” I wanted to know.
“It’s the one where this kid named Paul is cruel to animals, pulls off the wings of flies, crushes ants, does all sorts of horrible things, and one day the animals revolt and attack him. They pluck out his eyes and tongue and hair and everything,” Molly said. “It’s disgusting, and it’s illustrated! The whole book’s full of stories like that.”
“That’s awful,” Aunt Joan said, but she was laughing. “I’m going back to the salt mines. Dishes.”
“Who’s Eddy Puss?” I asked again.
“Me too,” Ma said. “I’ve already heated the water four times, and I can’t seem to get to them.”
“Read,” Skippy said.
“Play,” Molly said.
I rolled the dice, deciding to ask again later.
“‘Once upon a time, there was a boy by the name of Cruel Paul,’” Ma began.
Aunt Joan left. She’d be back. She was in and out of our tenement a half-dozen times a day.
Aunt Joan was slender and about the same height as her husband, Callan (“God made ’em, God matched ’em,” Granny said). She had an oval face and eyes I had trouble reading. Her dark hair was streaked with gray. Callan was short and powerfully built, with pale skin and a military crew cut. His eyes were brown and cold. Their identical twins were twelve, my brother Drew’s age. Where Pat was quiet and thoughtful and rather sweet, Little Cal was a hellion. Each twin had black hair in a crew cut, which their father gave them, brown eyes and lithe bodies.
I was afraid of my aunt. She took it upon herself to discipline us as if we were her own children, which I resented mightily. She would come upstairs every morning with her coffee to visit with Ma. They would exchange aches and pains and whatever bad news was going around (Dad used to mutter that they sounded like the soap opera As the World Turns). If she came up at night, and I was in bed trying to sing myself to sleep, she came to my door and yelled, “Stop all that noise in there! Turn your face to the wall and go to sleep!” Then she’d close my door tight, which I hated, for it left me in total darkness. I have often wondered why Ma let her interfere like that.
If Aunt Joan scared me, her husband terrified me. He lost his scattershot temper easily and beat his kids, and I was always afraid he’d do the same to us. In fact, he was used as the household threat: “Stop [whatever we were doing] or I’ll call Uncle Callan!” He was the bogeyman. He’d served in the Army and was stationed in France during World War II. Now he had a civil service job, working at city hall, which paid pretty well compared to blue-collar mill jobs. He also took care of most of the repairs needing to be done around the house—painting, shingling, seeding the “lawn,” pouring cement, building a fence or a garbage coop. He was multi-talented in these areas, where Dad was simply not interested in being the handyman. Maybe he got too much of that at work. At home, Dad’s toolbox consisted of a hammer, a couple of rusted screwdrivers, several bent nails, some random wrenches, and umpteen unidentifiable broken and abandoned things. Uncle Callan had an entire workshop in the cellar, including a workbench with a vise attached, saws, power tools, all sorts of equipment Dad didn’t want anything to do with in his off-work hours. So even if Uncle Callan was the family bogeyman, having him around had some benefits. For me, though, he was more than just the threat of a bogeyman. He was a predator. And for most of my childhood, I was his prey.