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The Berrigans of Butte, Montana

by Patrick Burns

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1. Mutualism

Butter and Lightning
Finn Malone 1958

I am in the closet with my grandmother. I call her Gram. My mother and her brothers call her Ma. With no light in the closet we are alone among the coats. She was cooking when the thunder started—rubbing the skin of an eight-pound turkey—so her hands are slick with butter. She’s afraid of the lightning and spends most storms in the closet since, as a child in Ireland, she saw her brother struck down and killed. I know this from my mother because Gram never speaks of it.

The closet smells like leather, like the inside of a boot, and Gram and I are holding hands as if we are siblings, as if I’d been born in Ireland and not in some American town. And while I’ve seen death—my father’s—I’ve never seen someone die, or seen the smoke come off someone’s skin. Because of this I am calm, or at thirteen I pretend to be.

In the darkness we do not speak. She cannot put words to her terror, but I stay with her and squeeze her hands when the whole house shakes from the storm. The butter melts on our fingers and the smell turns my stomach. For some reason, butter makes me think of sickness whenever it’s away from the kitchen.

We are in the closet for fifteen minutes or so before Mickey, my grandfather, comes home. He knocks hard on the closet door and she doesn’t like the sound. I want to take him by the throat, but he’s a miner and much too strong, his neck twice as thick as my hand. "Kate," he says, “you’re safe in the Goddamned house.”

He complains about his dinner, about the turkey uncooked by the stove, and when my pulse begins to race, Gram tries in her way to calm me. She pulls me toward her and my head nearly touches her chest. Our feet are not moving, but for a moment it’s like we are dancing. She smells like sweat and onions and against my will, I imagine what it would be like to kiss her—not as an old woman, but as a young girl back in Ireland.

The moment lingers and despite her age, despite the blood we share, I yield to the fantasy because in the dark I cannot see her. For a moment she’s just a woman whose fingers are covered in butter, a woman who, in my mind, is the girl of Mickey’s stories. The girl who, when her father had gone to town, would steal away to the shore and jump naked in the sea. How cold the water, how blue her Irish lips. That girl, the reckless one who shot milk on her brothers from udders. The lean and freckled one, the one with a bird in her heart. I imagine her and lean forward for a moment, as if I am not myself.

And then I start to hum. It’s one of two Irish songs I know, a song Gram herself has taught me. I am trying to soothe her. I am humming to remind myself that we are kin and not some strangers, but no matter how hard I try the sound still comes out red. The song that she taught me is not some lullaby. And still I hum. I hum and she is tense, but as the song progresses she begins to soften and the awful smell of the butter gives way to traces of lilac. Perhaps it had always been there, a perfume she dabbed on her neck, but now the trace grows stronger. Our hands grow warmer and there is nothing inside the closet but the strange possibility that our lips will somehow meet.

And then a thunder clap.

She trembles again and the lilac is dashed away. The butter smell returns along with the sweat and onions. I step back from her, stumbling on my grandfather’s boot, and still she is quiet, lost again in the memory of her brother. At least I hope this is the case.

The storm lasts for five more minutes and then it is safe to come out. Mickey has left the house and Gram returns to her turkey. I say that I must be going, and she doesn’t beg me to stay. “Off you go,” she says and kisses me on the cheek. It leaves a mark, as it always does, but she is back to her turkey before I can wipe it off. She is squat and heavy. Her hair is wrapped in a bun. There’s a mole on the back of her neck, a spot which I’d forgotten in the small unnatural moment. I shake my head when I know she can’t see me, as if doing such a thing would somehow erase what I’d wanted.

I have washed my hands, but there is still butter at my nails. As I leave the kitchen, I think I can hear her singing. It’s not the same song from the closet, and for a moment, I’m disappointed.

2. Commensalism

Mickey Berrigan 1917

Regardless of the weather, if it was summer in Butte and the workday had ended, then Sean Flurry took off his shirt and made a tail with it in his pants. Mickey never asked him why and for all the years he’d known him, Mickey just assumed that Sean liked the wind on his skin. The wind or the sunshine, an occasional rain. Hardly any miners did this—walked in the streets with their white chests on display—but Sean didn’t give a damn and for that sake neither did Mickey.

One day, after ten long hours of shoveling, Mickey peeled off his shirt as well, as if he’d done it a thousand times. He and Sean, two miners with nipples as red as apples, strolled home along the dirt roads of Centerville. One’s shoulder as high as the other’s. Sweat running down their arms. When Rose asked him later why he had done it—for the first time since he’d been mining—Mickey said that a man didn’t need a reason to take off his shirt outside. Hell, a man could, if he so desired, walk down the street in his skivvies—not that he should want to, but he could. That’s what he told her, but in the last weeks of his life, at a time when his sight had blurred and all thoughts were turned to the past, well, Mickey still didn’t know why he took off his shirt. He suspected, though he left it alone, that he owed his muddied intention to that rascal Sean Flurry and the shine Mickey saw on Sean’s muscles.

They were both strong men, but Sean was lean while Mickey was bull-thick and lumpy, a wedge of fat hanging from his neck. Sean swung a pick and broke up the rock while Mickey shoveled the rubble. They worked side by side, in the candlelight of the mineshaft, each wrangling the same bit of ore, but Sean looked more like a boxer with his sinewy arms and long, smooth muscles. Mickey, the pudge, was doughy around the middle, and his breasts sagged like an old woman’s.

None of this mattered in the muck of the mines, but above ground, where mothers were boiling cabbage and the children ran in packs, the rules were different. Spitters stood out like vagrants and foul-mouths, though there were many, and received the same scorn as drunks.“Well?” asked Sean. “How’s it feel then?”

“Not bad,” said Mickey, slapping his chest. “A fella could get used to this.” He rubbed his belly and spat.

“I say,” said Sean, “Let ‘em see who digs out their hill. There’s pride in that, ain’t there?”

Mickey nodded. “We earned it.”

“Hell, we earned more than pride.”

“It’s a start,” said Mickey. “Someday we’ll get the rest, our own share of the hill.”

“Like hell,” said Sean. “We’d have to take it.” He passed his forearm across his nose, leaving a small wet trail on his skin. “And I can’t say I’m against it.”

“Yeah,” said Mickey, “We’ll take it!” And for the first time in years, blood raced through his arms and into the tips of his fingers. A rush of excitement tightened his muscles, and the mischief reared up inside like a horse set free of its saddle.

As the two men spoke, their lunch pails slung over their shoulders, they hunched and growled and took on rough expressions until both men had forgotten themselves. The hair prickled on Mickey’s forearms and the small bell of his prostate bobbed as it had years before when he lived just to tear through the world.

“We’ll take it like the Vikings!” said Sean. “Rob and burn and all that.”

“Take what we want,” said Mickey.

“Whatever we want. See a steak, you eat it. Want a pint? Then grab it. Don’t ask for a Goddamned thing.”

“And the women?”

“Take them as well,” said Sean. “The first one you see. Hell, a man like you should take two.”

“I’ll take three,” roared Mickey. “A red-head, a blonde,” then he paused to bite his lip,“and one of those Spanish dancers.”

“A gypsy?” asked Sean.

“A Spaniard. I seen one in Dublin once. She had skin like the Devil’s daughter. I nearly went blind.”

“Was she dark?”

“Not black, if that’s what you mean. Golden brown.”

“Well,” said Sean, flexing his muscles at Mickey, “it’s Spanish women and Irish whiskey.”

“Spanish women!” screamed Mickey and he granted every thought he’d had for the girl.

He knew the Good Lord was watching, but she danced in his mind without clothes. While the two men raised their voices, one of the neighborhood children—a girl named Oona Brannan who had no friends her own age—ran inside to get her mother, who had hands like a journeyman sailor. They were rope-calloused and wiry, and she walked down the streets of Butte like she’d just been slapped in the face. Mickey knew this and, like most men in the mines,
always let her be.

“What’s all this hollering out here?” she asked them.

“Get back in your house,” yelled Sean. He pointed his black-nailed finger behind her and filled his lungs with air. “We’re minding our own business.”

“Sean Flurry,” she said, “if you don’t put that shirt back on and get the hell home, I’ll give you a fat lip that’ll keep ‘til Christmas.

“And you,” she said to Mickey, “cover your tits, man. You’re confusing my daughter.”

Sean kept to his posture, but Mickey, whose mood the woman had crumbled like a brittle clump of ore, slipped out of character and quickly put on his shirt.

In truth, Mickey could have finished the woman off, put his hand around her throat and crushed the bones of her neck. He could have cracked her skull with his fist or knocked all the teeth from her mouth. He could have squeezed the life right out of her, right there in front of her daughter, but that wouldn’t have made him a Viking. He would always be a miner, whether he kept his shirt on or not, and the woman he saw in Dublin, the gold-skinned Spanish dancer who he imagined without her clothes, she was, in fact, a Gypsy. No more Spanish than him or Sean.

3. Parasitism

Death at the Back of the Bus
Mickey Berrigan 1948

When Mickey Berrigan died at the back of the uptown bus, his first thought (after the memory of his mother stirring broth) was not for his wife, Rose, nor for his grandchildren who, he was told, did impressions of his bow-legged walk.  He was instead relieved—joyful even—as the stroke twisted his body because, though there was nothing great about dying on a bus, he had not died in the mines. Even after he retired and gave his shovel to Rose for her garden, he felt such a death inevitable, since God always spared good men (though the evidence was against it) and Mickey was a piss-ant at best. He figured there was always a chance he’d fall down some unmarked shaft or find himself lost in the darkness, having gone to help rescue some friends. He’d be a half-mile down with no one to wink at and choke on the same earth he shoveled. So death on a bus was no small bit of grace, but a miracle, the answering of a prayer Mickey whispered two times a day: “Lord, take me in the sunshine.”

But he was not without regrets. As he squirmed and gasped in his seat he remembered that he’d told his daughter that their outhouse was haunted. He thought she knew he was joking, but for the years that followed she suffered from constipation that Rose could not cure with her tonics. A mean thing he had done, but not as bad as taking the Lord’s name in vain while his boys were fighting the Germans. Mick Jr. was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, where Ed was shot through the leg. Mickey never forgave himself for his ill-timed slips of blasphemy, but when they all came home—shaken though alive— he swore he’d never curse again, at least not with Lord’s name included.  But he never thought once of Rose, not as he was dying.  And he didn’t long for one last pint.

He was flooded instead with colors, the colors he’d dug with his shovel in the damp earth of the mines. And what had always been onerous rock became, for a moment, a spiraling mosaic, a light-storm of blacks and browns. The dirt and the sludge were forgotten, and the glimmer from each piece of ore was recalled in a single flash. Recalled in a strange burst of sunshine.


Patrick Burns lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his bride-to-be and their small hooligan dogs. A native of Helena, Montana, Patrick spent his early years observing the winks and smirks of the Butte Irish. He owes his father's family a great debt of gratitude for all they shared—both knowingly and accidentally.
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