Dowsie Gannon, Age 2, in Cleveland
by Greg Rappleye
April 7, 1930
Three times—coming and going, coming again, they have sidetracked
and stopped dead for passage of The 20th Century, in a rumble of coal
and iron and smoke, its singular call—not a whistle, but an echoing horn,
a long brassy howl, with red carpets rolled and loop-tied, waiting at both ends
of its speedy Chicago runs; Maman saying in her best English, each time
more sadly, There goes The 20th Century.
They have sold all but what folds in cardboard suitcases (Dowsie keeps a rag doll), and are chipping fares half-way across America to live out Da’s goodbye-days in Jackson, Michigan. This last train was boarded in Buffalo and stops at every junky town that dots the Erie coast, dropping-off milk cans and grimy chemical tanks, once, even hooking-up an old slumber coach for a short tug to Ashtabula. These stops, the sidetracks, lull the child to sleep. Then, crankier, she startles awake when the throaty Mohawk engine bump-couples or uncouples another car.
It’s 4 AM. The brake lines hiss-away steam. They are entering Cleveland, Ohio, pulling ever more slowly past Mr. Rockefeller’s refinery, past the fiery Bessemer rolling mills and the Irish Flats, past the Haymarket and the jolly all-night neon of Sing Long Low Chop Suey.
There’s an hour to pass before this train pulls away again. Da eases back on a station bench and drinks deeply of laudanum, prescribed by Doc McCain for Da’s dusty mill-snot cough, as Maman carries Dowsie deep into the big hall, where Dowsie stares at the sunflowered ceiling—a painted sky, aglow, arching blue behind the flowers; the wide, black-eyed flowers, like so many bumble-dee bees, like so many be-fuzzled eyes, watching her, divining, a word she does not know.
Do the scitsifréine voices, her Gaelic pookas, already mutter? Dowsie whimpers, she slides to the marble floor and howls, kicks with her sturdy legs and diaper-less, wets the floor and her cotton smock—drawing looks from passers-by—a Red Cap, a wimpled nun, two sailors on leave from Chicago. Petite merde! Maman cries in her native Quebecois, loud enough for the nun to cross herself and blush, to recall her vows as Bride of Christ, as Maman drags Dowsie from her puddle. She carries the howling child, its tiny hands rowing the circumference of tea cups, back to the nodding Da, grabs the laudanum from his breast pocket, and forces ten drops, maybe more of this tincture of opium and grain alcohol down Dowsie’s throat—who can safely say how much she gave her, more than eighty years on?
It is hot, Dowsie thinks, eyes wide and startled into silence—then to a squall of baby coughs, until she forgets to cough and whatever burns within her body, as, with an iron shrug, The 20th Century rumbles by again, its great brass horn howling through the pithy sumac that grows, unchecked, where the famous train makes such quick work now crossing the Cuyahoga River.
About the Author
Greg Rappleye’s second collection of poems, A Path Between Houses (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000) won the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. His third collection, Figured Dark (University of Arkansas Press, 2007) was co-winner of the Arkansas Prize in Poetry was published in the Miller Williams Poetry Series. His fourth collection, Tropical Landscape with Ten Hummingbirds, was published in the fall of 2018 by Dos Madres Press. He teaches in the English Department at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.