The Depression, The Cold War, and The Chemist | M. F. McAuliffe

(Torrance, California, 1986)

He lashes out at the dark, at Alice and anyone or anything around him in that box of a condo. The dark’s around him when he’s drunk, when he’s not drunk, when he’s awake, when he’s asleep, when he breathes. Thick as thunder, thick as hills.

Resentful, panicked, overburdened—

He was born into a Finnish farming family in Big Sky Montana. The Great Depression struck. Drought and the dust storms struck, thickened the air until it was earth and the cattle dropped in the fields. His mother was sick. His father went away to look for work.

He drinks because he was that little boy. Cold sweating bottle after cold sweating bottle to drown his mind if he can’t drown his pain. He believes and does not believe that he deserves to be abandoned, ten years old in a chaos of Montana prairie, dead cattle and a skin-stripping wind, told to make a farm of it, told if he doesn’t his mother and brothers will starve.

Farming the wind.

He spent his adult working life as a chemist. He worked on The Bomb all through the fifties, as an X-ray crystallographer after. Every one of his children, by two wives, was physically or mentally handicapped.

He lashes out at Alice and the condo and the confines of his time and place and fate. The handicaps aren’t Alice’s fault. They aren’t even his.

He knows what the radiation’s done. He didn’t know for years; then he let himself suspect. And after that the job he had was still the best job he could get; he had to pay for medical care for his kids.

He feels inhuman. The years-long storm he couldn’t beat, the sand and dust and ash and thunder and hunger and fury and guilt and despair. He feels like an outcast, he feels like a reptile, he feels like a monster. Breaks things—wooden things, glass things, plastic things—Screams, eyes bloodshot, watering, lips flecked, hands, clothes bloody. Drives Alice out.

He wants to feel like a monster.

A monster has some sort of power.

M. F. McAuliffe is co-founder of Gobshite Quarterly and GobQ Books, and author of Seattle and The Crucifixes and Other Friday Poems. “The Depression, The Cold War, and The Chemist” is part of her forthcoming collection, I’m Afraid of Americans.