Thirty years a foreman for the shipyard & a helluva job my uncle did. Navy captains would ask for him by name. “Get me Bontempi,” they’d say, because he got down in the holds with his crew & by God, blowtorch & rivet gun he got it done right, which is what killed him just before his retirement, breathing in that asbestos till the fibers ate his lungs & the killer drugs, grisly with side effects, kept him hanging by a thread another year before his stomach bloated up & he couldn’t piss, wouldn’t eat, lay in his bed & moaned.
Curly-haired bambino who quit school to support the family his father deserted, who worked hard all his life, hands leathern with calluses.
It happened that I saw my uncle a few days before he died. I was up north traveling & stopped to visit the same night as some friends of his from the shipyard, a stiff couple not given to many words but faithful. We all sat in the den, my uncle in his robe, belly big as a watermelon, & my aunt, heartsick, ankles swollen, eyes red with the flu & what was coming, & the television set was on.
The television set was on because this was America in the eighties & there was no way for us to connect to the mystery of his going. Like the chilled fans in Candlestick’s box seats, waiting out innings, each of us sat alone in our sadness, as though death were a parking ticket or a distant cousin we refused to recognize, losing ourselves in baseball.
We sat alone in our sadness because somewhere on the boat across the Atlantic, or maybe later in a crisp suburban tract by the Passaic, or later still on the final promised cliffs of the Pacific, somewhere we lost death & our connection to it & bought instead a new Cadillac or a Frigidaire that made its own ice cubes.
So, gathered together for that last windy October night in Bremerton, Washington, far from the rest of the family, my aunt & uncle & I & their friends, we watched the World Series, chatting during commercials about the weather & selling the house & all the time thanking God that we didn’t have to look at Harry who was dying painfully & who knew it & who had no help with it. Sitting around a table eating cookies & drinking coffee & my uncle coughing up phlegm & thirty years’ asbestos as the catcher flashed his signals & the pitcher unwound to deliver & the batter fanned air, striking out.
Five of us, our shadows flickering in the artificial light & the World Series as close as we could get to God.