Cold stones : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Cold stones

By Marc Munroe Dion

When the poor and working class people of Mill River, Mass., speak English (and at least two-thirds of them can speak English) it is with an accent that does not sound like Boston, which is 50 miles north. Nor does it sound like the stereotypical “ayup,” accent one associates with Yankee apple famers living outside perpetually snow-blanketed Vermont towns.

Mill Riverites say “youze” as the plural of “you.”  They not only drop their “r’s,” as do many New Englanders, but they have trouble with the “th” sound.

“If youze guys is goin’, den I will too,” the Mill Riverite says.

The use of “bloody” as an all-purpose intensifier, the Mill River denizen owes to the English weavers who came to work the cotton mills in the 1820s. Some say the Mill River native got “youze” from the Irish who arrived in 1848, and natives who say, “no?” at the end of inquisitorial sentences are said to have gotten that habit from the French-Canadian immigrants who arrived beginning in the 1880s.

“It’s a nice ring, no?” said John “Gottaguy” Gomes, sitting comfortably at the bar of the St. James Irish Pub, a basement bar in Mill River. Outside, sleet blew sideways onto the city, which wore its familiar winter cloak of gray. “Gottaguy” was a professional criminal who purchased, at a steep discount, items stolen by Mill River junkies who committed suburban housebreaks. Gomes’ nickname came from the fact that, if asked where one could buy heroin, guns, vinyl siding, tools, automobile parts, liquor or the services of a prostitute, Gomes would think for a second, click his thick thumbnail against his upper front teeth and say, “I gotta guy …”

The “guy” Gomes knew always delivered, though it was best not to ask how the guy could afford to sell at such a low price.

“I don’t know about giving Simone a hot ring,” said Jack Dupont, taking a short black pipe from his mouth and blowing a cloud of smoke into the close, overheated air of the St. James. In summer, the bar was a refrigerator. In winter, it was a pizza oven.

“Customers like I got, they work outside,” owner Ron “Captain Ron” Mello often said. “In the summer, they’re up a ladder, shingling somebody’s roof. In the winter, they’re unloading trucks out on a loading dock, six below outside. Whatever the weather is outside, I keep it the opposite in here.”

“The ring ain’t hot,” Gottaguy said. “Show it to one of your cop friends. Tell him the address of the house it came out of. There’s no burglary report on that house.”

“Tell me the story,” said Dupont.

Gottaguy sighed.

“Junkie named Ryan Burke,” Gottaguy said. “He’s in the can now; tried to kill his girlfriend with a crossbow.  Hit her in the arm. Be out in about three.

“His mother lived in Swansett,” Gottaguy said, naming a Mill River suburb whose 10 percent unemployment rate encouraged its residents to put on airs when comparing themselves to Mill River, where the unemployment rate had hit 18 percent that January. “His mother was no trouble to anybody.  His father died of leukemia when he was eight.

“A year before he goes away, Ryan Burke’s mother dies. Car accident. Drunk driver hit her head on. She leaves Ryan everything, him being her only kid.

“He moves into the house, sells the furniture, passes out on the lawn every couple days, sells her car. Toilet stops working but him and his junkie buddies use it anyway. When it’s full, they start crapping in the bathtub.

“He sells me her engagement ring for $1,000,” Gottaguy said. “Gotta be at least $4,000 worth of diamond in there. Too bad he didn’t sell me the crossbow. He’d be eatin’ dinner at McDonald’s tonight.

“I’ll take $2,000 for it because I know you a long time.”

Dupont knocked out his pipe in the much-too-small glass ashtray on the bar and, even though the bowl still sizzled, he began to stuff it with his own mix of Five Brothers, Latakia and black Louisiana Perique.

Dupont pointed his index finger at Gottaguy’s longneck bottle of Miller Lite, then at his own shot glass and, lastly, at his nearly empty pint of Guinness Stout.

“’Round the horn, Tommy,” Dupont said to the bartender.

Like his girlfriend Simone LaCroix, Dupont worked for the Mill River Standard Times. He was the paper’s columnist. She was its best reporter, a 5-foot-2-inch blond woman with a Manhattan sense of style and a Mill River attitude that ranged from dismissive to confrontational. Dupont, to whom love was a sentence from a corrupt judge, was thinking of asking for her small, blond hand in marriage.

Dupont’s pre-Simone love affairs had always possessed the quality of brevity. He did not so much break up with women as he wandered away, back to the newspaper office and the bars and the five-room apartment he shared with his 82-year-old mother.

Dupont held the ring in his long, thin fingers and moved it until the round, multi-faceted stone caught the light from a red neon sign that said “RED SOX NATION.”

“I’ll bring you the money tomorrow,” he told Gottaguy, handing the ring back.

“Keep it,” Gottaguy said. “You don’t gotta bring me the money tomorrow. End of the week’ll be fine. You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“And you know where I work,” Dupont laughed.

“If you tried to rob me, I wouldn’t be the one came lookin’ for you,” Gottaguy said, “I gotta guy …”

Gottaguy removed a flip-top box of Marlboro cigarettes from the inside pocket of his black leather sport coat. He took the last cigarette from the pack and tucked it into the corner of his narrow, ugly mouth.

He dropped the ring into the empty cigarette pack, closed the flip-top and handed the pack to Dupont.

“It comes with a box,” he said. “Take it to a jeweler and get the date shaved off the inside.”

As Gottaguy said, Dupont wasn’t going anywhere. He was 50 years old and, other than four years of college in Boston and three years working on a big Midwestern daily, he had lived his whole life in Mill River.

A city of 88,000, Mill River had beaten Detroit to the punch. Detroit started losing the auto industry in the 1980s. Mill River’s cotton mills went under in the 1930s. The mills were replaced by garment shops, all of which the locals called “sweatshops,” and with good reason. The sweatshops started closing in the 1970s, when a magazine for owners in the garment trade began carrying an advertisement for Mexican manufacturers who would sew clothes for American labels. The ad showed a lovely, yet docile-looking Mexican woman seated at a sewing machine.

“Meet Rosa,” the ad said. “She sews for 10 cents an hour.”

She did, too. And Mill River slumped back into welfare, part-time work, useless “job training programs” and heroin.

Dupont had enough of a sense of humor to leave the ring in its cigarette box when he stashed it in the drawer of his dresser. He had enough of a sense of self-preservation to give Gottaguy the money by the end of the week.

A 36-year-old welfare mother of two named Gigi Gargotta had very little sense of self-preservation left, but she licked the end of the needle before working the sharp tip into a vein behind her right knee. Junkies believe licking the tip of the needle keeps the shot from burning the skin.

It was heroin Gargotta had paid for but it was Fentanyl she’d been sold. Fentanyl is a synthetic drug, stronger than heroin, and it turned her lips blue, convulsed her skinny body and stopped her heart. Gargotta’d been shooting up with two other addicts in a 13-year-old green Toyota Corolla. As a gesture of concern, her two friends dumped her body on the sidewalk in front of the emergency room at St. Anne’s Hospital.

“They parked down by the river, got high,” Simone LaCroix said in the office of the Mill River Standard Times. “Junkies love scenery.

“Ten-inch story,” Simone said. “Twelve-inch sidebar that I’m sure will be headlined “The curse of heroin addiction.”

“She was pretty,” Jack Dupont muttered.

“Gigi Gargotta?” Simone said. “You cover one of her trials for possession or something?”

“I dated her,” Dupont said.

If you considered stories about burglaries, murders, gangs, underperforming schools, the city’s eroding tax base, its abandoned downtown and the flight of working-class people to the suburbs, almost every story the Standard Times wrote was about heroin.

Simone had been lifelong-bachelor Dupont’s girlfriend for five years. She was aware that his pre-Simone girlfriend choices included at least one stripper and several women who had more tattoos than they had spent years in school. Three months into their relationship, she had forced a squirming, eyes-downcast Dupont to go get an AIDS test, which he had passed.

“I talked to a counselor up at the addiction center,” Simone said “He toldme the junkies are already trying to buy the same stuff killed Gigi Gargotta,” Simone said. “He said they figure if it killed her, it’s gotta be great dope.”

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