After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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Somewhere we know that, without silence, words lose their meaning; that, without listening, speaking no longer heals; that, without distance, closeness cannot cure.
— Henri Nouwen
That morning, before we got the terrible news, my father emerged from the bathroom smelling of hot water and bar soap and a healthy application of Stetson cologne. I sat with my parents at the kitchen table, sipping Mr. Coffee blend. I was twenty-one and couldn’t find a job after college, so I’d gone to work with my father in the ceiling-tile factory where he’d put in nearly thirty years. In less than two hours my dad and I had to be back at the factory for a twelve-hour shift — maybe sixteen, if someone called in sick. It had been this way all summer, and I was drinking and smoking weed to combat the hellish hours and popping speed to make it through the shifts. It was quiet in our rented house, save for the percolating coffee maker. Outside, the sun beat down, burning my mother’s unwatered geraniums; she’d given up on trying to keep them alive, and instead had begun picking the dandelions that dotted the brown lawn. She’d bring them inside in bunches, clutching the wilted heads to her chest as she filled a Folgers can with water.
At the table, my mother stared at my dad, a look of weariness in her eyes. She worked as an assistant manager at Arby’s, and together they were struggling to pay down a farm-foreclosure debt. She was about to say something to my dad when the phone rang, and he stood up and went to answer it. My mother’s eyes filled with tears, but she didn’t cry. I pretended some powdered creamer needed mashing in the bottom of my cup.
My father returned to the table, his lips clamped tightly shut and his brow furrowed. “That was the union rep,” he said. My dad swallowed hard, then continued: “Carl accidentally ran over one of the twins last night with the mower. She’s dead.”
My mother sobbed, burying her face in her hands, then quickly stood and began ridding the table of our unfinished coffees. Carl worked in the factory and was one of my father’s oldest friends. His twin girls, always wanting to be near their dad, had begged Carl to let them ride on the tractor with him while he mowed the brush grass. With his perfect girls on either side of him, their little legs dangling over the wheel wells, Carl cut first one swath, then another. The Bush Hog reduced the tall brush to tiny chips. At the end of the field, they bumped unexpectedly over a deep furrow. One of the twins lost her grip, slipped off the seat, and fell under the mower. There was no way for Carl to avoid running over her.
My mother ran hot water in the sink, scraped at saucers that didn’t need cleaning, and let out tiny sobs. I closed my eyes and tried to stave off the buzz from my morning wake-up pill. Words did not come easy to my father. In fact, he treated them like an enemy. He’d always helped his union brothers with actions. Words were useless, in his opinion; only work could make something better. I imagined that my father felt lost now, confused as to how to help his friend, and I prayed that God would give my father words he could use.
He walked to the door and picked up his keys and wallet. “Some of us are going over there now,” he said. I stood to go with him, but he stopped me. “You’ve got to fill in at the factory. I told them you’d be right over. Someone’s going to pick you up.” With that he left, the heavy metal storm door screeching on its hinges. I stood, feeling queasy, anger riding up. My mother sniffled, a rush of breath escaping her. “Thank you, baby, for sitting down to breakfast,” she said. “Pray for Carl’s family.” When I finally left the house, she was out back, picking dandelions that had gone to seed.
At the factory word spread quickly and respectfully about the accident. Though at times the union men could say the crudest things, they were also capable of intense empathy. They’d walked picket lines together, fought to get an extra dime of medical coverage, attended one another’s weddings and funerals. A man who had developed hard feelings toward another man because of competition over a job bid or a shift preferential would still come to the other man’s aid, help feed his family.
I clocked in and quickly went to the ugly bathroom to swallow some pills. I was due at my station in ten minutes to start a sixteen-hour shift. Peeing and holding my breath against the stench of the urinal, I felt a sudden shame. I shouldn’t have been able to take drugs while Carl’s little girl was lying dead in a morgue. So I did what every addict does when confronted with guilt: I took more.
At the rock-wool baler I swept up and phoned the foreman on the other side of the plant to tell him the conveyor was nearly full of bales and needed to be unloaded. Soon I heard a forklift barreling in my direction. It was my dad. He stopped at the end of the conveyor and expertly speared several huge bales with the lift’s shiny forks. Then he zipped past, never looking my way. I straightened my posture and continued to sweep up, feigning indifference. I’d thought he’d still be out with Carl and his family, but there he was, loading boxcars with bales of rock-wool insulation. He flew back and forth between docks and baler with precision, taking three bales at a time.
My dad was a master at filling the train cars. He loved being around trains, I suspect because they were going places, while he had to stay put. When I was little and he’d been working at the factory only a few years, he would bring home items that had fallen off the train. Once, he toted home a huge cardboard box filled with barrettes of every size and shape. My little sister clipped a mess of them into my cropped bangs and along the crown of my head. I loved it, though I knew it was wrong for a boy to wear them. When our mother called us to dinner, my sister and I tried to get them all out, but we missed one: a bright pink barrette over my right ear. My father spotted it, and I was so ashamed that I ripped the clip out, taking some hair with it, and placed it next to my plate. For the rest of the meal I watched the hairs stuck in the barrette quiver in the slightest breath of air.
Finished with the loading, my dad appeared on foot from around the back of the baler, his cheeks slightly red, shirt sleeves rolled up, a pair of worn leather gloves on his fists. He walked to the giant Igloo cooler and filled a cup with yellow Gatorade, then sucked it down and filled the cup again. I watched him wipe his mouth like John Wayne and toss the cup into the dustbin.
“I’m here for sixteen too,” he said, nearly yelling to be heard over the noise. “Buzz me on the phone when the conveyor is full, and I’ll take care of it.”
As he turned to go, I asked, almost screaming, “How’s Carl?”
My dad swung around, took me by the arm, and ushered me to a quieter spot near some lockers. “God damn it,” he said, fire in his words, “be fucking careful over here. That piece-of-shit baler locks up, don’t you get up there like Henry does and try to unjam it. Call the goddamn foreman. It’s his job. Don’t you do it!” He let loose his grip on my arm, and I turned my back on him and began sweeping, my face red from having been berated. His forklift roared to life, and he sped away, only to return a couple of minutes later. He pulled up alongside the baler and shut off the engine. “You need any money for lunch?” he yelled. I shook my head no, and for the briefest of moments I thought I could see a slight quiver in his chin, perhaps some glassiness in his eyes. He looked as though he was trying to find some of those precious words he kept to himself, the ones he hoarded from his family. But it wasn’t going to happen. His best friend was going through hell, and it was too much to ask my dad — or anyone, really — to find the words to explain it. Carl, the man I regarded as an uncle, part of the family, would have to live the remainder of his life knowing he’d run over his baby girl with a mower. Those are the words my dad couldn’t get to come out, so vulgar and true and altogether necessary.
The night wore on like a dull ache. At the docks, trains blasted by every half-hour, horns roaring like tortured beasts. The rock-wool baler kept coming to life too, working with oiled exactitude, pushing forth a new bale onto the scales for me to measure, weigh, and record before sending it down the conveyor. By midnight I could feel the weight of sleep. I’d pulled sixteen-hour shifts all month and hadn’t slept well. Over the loudspeaker came the squelch of feedback popping and the sound of the foreman clearing his throat. The fabrication line on the other side of the factory whined down and grew quiet. The foreman’s voice reverberated fuzzily: “If we could all please use the next couple of minutes of silence to pay respect to Carl King and his family.” With that, the speakers went dead, and the men up on the catwalks bent their heads and moved their lips. The snowy puffs of rock wool swirling about their heads made them look angelic in their towering roost.
Back before the accident, Carl would often come to our farm to help load livestock, and my dad would goose him, tickled by how his short friend jumped in the air and yelled, “Stop it, God damn it!” and blushed. They’d laugh so hard they gave themselves stomachaches. Now I’d never see Carl laugh like that again.
I heard the escalating hum of the fab line starting up, signaling that the period of silence was over. The next step would be for the union men to gather cash from everyone to deliver to the family, and money for a grave-site wreath. I was about to pick up the phone to call my dad again when he flew up on his forklift, shut off the engine while the lift was still moving, and stepped down as it rolled to a stop, like a cowboy sliding from a trotting horse.
He approached me with sadness in his face. Then he caught himself, like a machine that seizes up, and he was all business again. “I’ll help you get these last bales done,” he said. He worked with total confidence, punching buttons and taking shortcuts I’d not thought of using. As usual, we spent our time together trying to talk about something for which words wouldn’t come. But I felt relieved to have his help, and when I walked along beside him to finish the night’s work, the steps we took were in complete synch. Then I noticed the sweet smell of alcohol that eased from his mouth.
A few weeks later, after we’d worked a set of double shifts, my dad approached me at work. He spoke clearly and without emotion, his words rushing over me like ice-cold water, refreshing and brutal at once: “Carl’s back. He’s not going to be able to talk about this, so just tell him hi and ’bye. Don’t ask him how he’s doing. You understand?”
I understood. He was worried I’d offer some silly words to try to comfort Carl and only make things worse. I pushed a green button to send a bale down the line, the white rock wool so newly spun that it gave off a burnt smell. My dad walked to the conveyor and shut it off.
“You got a hot one,” he said, pointing to where the end of the bale was smoldering. Then the cardboard cap went up in flames. He edged me aside, yanked a fire extinguisher from the wall, and sprayed the flame, killing it instantly, the plumes from the extinguisher coiling into nothingness.
“A hot coal. Didn’t burn up in the cupola,” he said blandly. He used a pocketknife to gouge into the bale, twisted the blade with the precision of a surgeon, and popped the glowing rock loose. Then he doused it with a quick spurt of foam. “Don’t ever touch one of those. Use a knife or a pry bar to dig it out. Trucker once had to get skin grafted onto his hand after grabbing one of those sons of bitches without a glove.” He kicked the hunk of coal toward a pile of sand kept on the floor of the wool mill for dousing fires.
I was high and drained. My eyes throbbed with the rapid pulses my heart churned out, speed sending blood rushing through the chambers as if I were running on a treadmill. My dad turned to look at me, and for a second I thought he’d seen the drugged look in my eyes, smelled the marijuana in my clothes. Was he drinking right now? The smell of alcohol before had been strong, but perhaps he’d been around some of those union men who reeked regularly of gin or cheap whiskey. It would’ve done us both good to fess up right then, but the moment passed, and my dad was back on his forklift, heading out of the wool mill in a blur.
It was past time to clock out when I walked to the office my dad kept so orderly and clean. The hallway was dark, and the arctic air blasting from the vents gave me goose bumps. I crooked my head around to peek inside his office.
At first I didn’t even see Carl, his small frame all but dwarfed by my dad’s desk. He stared numbly at the wall, his hands folded at his chest, his weathered lunchbox open before him. I assumed he was waiting for my father. As if in a trance, Carl took a sandwich from his pail, unwrapped it, put the soft white bread to his mouth, chewed weakly, and swallowed. Then he pulled the lunch bucket toward him and, without the slightest emotion, vomited the bite into the box. I wanted to burst in, defy my father’s instructions, and fumble through an awful speech about how sorry I was, but I couldn’t move. Carl gingerly placed the sandwich back in the box and closed the lid. Just then, I saw my father coming out of the office-supply pantry.
I started jogging down the hall as if I were late to clock in rather than past time to clock out. My chest hurt for Carl. I ran into the parking lot without punching the clock — something I knew might get my pay docked — and headed for the entrance gates. I couldn’t face a ride home with my dad in silence, and the nearest place to go was the tavern, a few blocks from the factory. I ran the whole way. It was pitch-dark and hot out, only a sliver of a moon above the trees. Dogs in the yards of ramshackle houses growled and scratched at clattering gates. I was running so hard it was difficult to inhale, but still I poured it on, as if I were about to cross a finish line. When I reached the sidewalk leading to Smitty’s Bar, I stopped to catch my breath, sucking in the night air.
My dad had never said as much, but I knew the tavern at night was off-limits to me. I’d been there a few times with him at dinnertime to eat fried tenderloins with pickles and mayonnaise, the combination of sweet and salty so good with an ice-cold Fanta pop you’d swear nothing could ever taste better. And when I was little enough that my dad still felt comfortable hugging me, my mother would bring my little sister and me to Smitty’s for a treat. We’d sit in a booth and eat French fries and sip milk from little cartons and feel like big kids while my dad showed us off to any men who happened to pass by. But he never wanted us to see the same men at night, in much different condition.
The music from inside rumbled the loose panes in the windows, and the smack of billiard balls hitting one another made me want to chalk up a cue and bet a few bucks. When I opened the heavy door, a small bell chimed. The smoke was so thick it seemed as though I could nap on it, like a cartoon cloud. Sweat trickled down my spine, making the waistband of my underwear wet and clammy as I walked to the bar and sat down. The stools were covered in cracked red vinyl, the slits sprouting white tufts that reminded me of rock wool. I wondered if they were actually stuffed with wool from the factory.
I ordered a Budweiser, the only brand the bar served, and the bartender plopped the glass in front of me with a thud, spilling suds over the side and onto the napkin. I threw back as much as I could in one drink without getting an ice-cream headache. The beer was refreshing after the run and helped me believe everything was going to be OK, that my problems were only fleeting. I ordered another. As I placed my money on the counter, I noticed a large Mason jar with a simple label: “King Family Donations.” Underneath was our phone number and my dad’s name. I took several bills from my pocket and shoved them into the jagged slit. I’d been told to leave Carl be, even if my entire soul told me to do otherwise, and that’s what I would do.
© Ellen Wallenstein
I stayed high all the next week, shift after shift. I was sitting out behind the factory on break when I heard a train screech to a halt, the metal grinding on metal, telling all within earshot that something terrible had happened again.
I hadn’t known the little girl this time, but I’d seen her in town on her bike, tiny knees scabbed, shiny hair lifting up as she gained speed and deliberately took her feet off the spinning pedals. That was the extent of my knowledge of her: she was simply a little kid on a bike, her whole not-yet-flawed life before her.
She had tried to ride her bike through the railroad crossing and hadn’t made it. Men in the factory said the only things they knew how: “She went quick. We can thank God for that.” “She wouldn’t have known what hit her.” They said these things to comfort themselves, but after a while such statements began to carry an angry edge, each word spit out like a hot pellet, accompanied by a seething intolerance for any more death. How could another child be harmed? Why?
I couldn’t bear to stand around with the others and trade snippets of rumors while the sheriffs walked around the factory, their brown uniforms and gleaming badges so out of place in our dusty, itchy hellhole. So I went and sat alone in the little-used lunchroom.
Carl was so quiet when he came in that I didn’t even hear him. One moment I was alone, and the next he was across from me, pouring a cup of steaming coffee into his silver thermos cup, his tiny hands, rough like my dad’s, doing their best not to shake. His presence made me start to shiver. I’d not sought him out; it was simply a coincidence that we’d both chosen to hide out in the same unfrequented room where we couldn’t see the flashing lights of the ambulance or the police cars. There was no sound of sirens, a muted acknowledgment that a race to the emergency room could not help the girl now.
Carl’s head hung down, but he must have felt my stare on him, because he looked up, his eyes glassy and brown and full of tears, an expression of begging at the borders, where the whites were laced with red. I’d hardly gotten out the words “I’m sorry” before I broke down. Carl reached over and patted my hands and then hung his head again. Feeling ashamed that all I could give him was the burden of more sorrow, I pushed my chair back, got up, and headed for the door. I looked over my shoulder at Carl’s back, hunched over, the sunburnt nape of his neck, the graying hair at the base gently curled. As I stepped outside, I heard a sound from behind me, a steady moan that ended abruptly. And that’s what made me simply leave the factory and walk toward the tavern in town.
Hours later, drunk, I sat alone on the steps of a church just a few blocks from the still-frantic factory. Statues of Mary and Jesus and a few nameless saints appeared to me to be whirling around the church rooftop, peeking around the sides of the bell. A deep shudder quaked my stomach, and I threw up in some bushes, a mixture of beer and whiskey and speed burning my nostrils as it foamed out of them.
As I snuck clumsily around the back of the church, I knew that I’d had enough and couldn’t stay on at the factory. I tried the rear door of the building, but it was bolted. Nearby a spigot dripped water, the rhythmic drop, drop, drop like a chant. I sat down again on the front steps and really tried to pray, but nothing would come. Every time I started to ask for mercy on the families, I couldn’t find the words. Each prayer began with a sweeping, grandiose benediction, then fizzled out. Ever since I’d been saved at a Quaker church in junior high, I’d prayed each night in bed as I drifted off to sleep, but now all I could manage were some rambling, dislocated words. In Sunday school the teacher had talked to us about paradise, calling it the “abode of God.” The phrase clanged around in my head now until I became angry. How could someone live in paradise and watch out his front door as his neighbors were massacred? It would take a soulless demon just to sit by and do nothing.
Car headlights poured over the church steps. I thought for sure the police had come for me. I shielded my eyes and squinted into the glare. Then the lights went off, and a voice called, “Come on.” Leaves rustled. The car engine popped and settled. I could see the orange tip of a cigarette, and the smell of Stetson cologne drifted over me. “We’re taking Carl home,” my dad said, his voice mild, resigned.
I walked to the car and got in the front seat with them. Carl sat between us. In the humid dark of the night, my dad put the car in gear. “How about we go have some coffee and a fritter?” Carl nodded in agreement, and my dad backed away from the church. The weak light from the dashboard shone on us, and when my dad reached over and softly patted his friend’s hand, fast and efficient, I believed it was the answer to my prayer.