Waste

Fiction by Christopher Coake

Right before eight a.m., the new guy shows up at the corner and stands with his back against the bricks of the drugstore, hands in his pockets and not looking anybody in the eye, wearing torn jeans and a dirty down jacket and brand-new work gloves without any creases. He’s maybe thirty, has black hair, long and girly in a ponytail. He gives us a look like he’s tough, even though he’s just a skinny little guy. A kid. We all stare back.

I say, “Hey, queerboy, nobody’s buying,” and all the guys laugh.

The new guy smiles, except not really, and says, “I’m here to work.”

“The fuck you are,” Davey says.

The new guy says, “Harvey told me to be here. I’m Jimmy.”

Nobody says his name back.

He shrugs, lights a cigarette, and stands off to the side. All of us are quiet then.

See, we hate it when new guys show up. And this one? He’s too pretty, too young, too raw. All of us are sure Harvey’s got a thing for little prettyboys just like this one.

But then I start thinking about how the only reason any of us got this work in the first place is because Harvey found us somewhere in this fucking city, crying in our beer, or looking like we were about to knock off a liquor store. And then he sat beside us at the bar, or pulled up beside us at the curb in his big shiny black Mercedes and said hello, and then he offered to buy us a meal, and while we were sitting across from him at the diner feeling warm food hit our stomachs for the first time in fuck knows how long, he’d talk for a while about Jesus—the real Jesus, not Jesús next to me who I know jacks off in the bathroom during breaks—and by the time he was done, you figured you’d join any church in the fucking world if it meant Harv would promise you another breakfast like the one in your belly.

I’m thinking, one time it was you showing up for the first time at the pickup corner, even though you were sure, deep down, this was going to be one more joke the world played on you; you thinking, If the fat man in his big car shows up and takes you down an alley and turns off the engine—what would I do, would I do it to eat?

Maybe that’s why Jimmy’s now leaning against the wall and smiling, just a little. Because he’s seeing what we all saw, once: not that alley but a bunch of men, ready to work.

I can’t help but watch him. There’s something about the kid, someone he reminds me of. Hurts my head to think about it.

The kid keeps his chin tucked to his chest. It’s late November and fucking cold. I wonder, not for the first time, why I’m so dumb I had to bottom out in Indianapolis and not, I don’t know, Miami or San Diego or Houston.

A few minutes after eight Harvey pulls up, not in his Mercedes but in a U-Haul. He climbs out of the cab dressed as he always is, in a black suit and white shirt and no tie and shiny black shoes. He’s real pale, Harv, and has the sort of big, bald, unlined baby face that makes his age impossible to figure. He likes to look you right in the eye; it’s something to do with all the Good News he’s carrying around.  

He says, “Have to go for a drive today, boys.”

Most of the jobs he gives us we can walk to; his church farms us out to businesses that need cheap, strong backs. In summer we do a lot of weeding and mowing. In winter we mostly do interior work—though a lot of that is off the books. Most of us have learned a trade, but not a one of us is licensed, and none of us pays any taxes—none of us wants to, and more than one of us is afraid to put his name on any form, ever. Harvey follows God’s law, but he’s a little more flexible about man’s. As long as he pays us—and he does—not a one of us will ask any questions.

Even so, the U-Haul is bad news. No one wants to ride squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder in that cold box.

Harv rubs his gloved hands together and smiles real big at the new kid and says, “Good to see you, James.”

The kid smiles back and says, “Morning, Mr. Peete,” like we’re all in first grade, and Davey mutters “faggot” under his breath.

When we’re sitting in the back of the U-Haul, all of us trying to brace against the swaying walls, I say to the kid, “Got your nose jammed pretty far up Harv’s ass, there, son.”

Davey laughs then, but weird-like. Davey’s the only friend I got in this fucking town, by which I mean he’s the only guy I know who’d back me up if some punk gave me shit at a bar. He’s my age—fifty or so—bald, big drooping mustache, smells bad up close, his left eye milk-white.

“The fuck’s your problem?” I ask.

“You called him son,” Davey says.

“So?”

“Poor fuck looks just like you, Mickey.”

The kid glances at me with horror and then stares down at his boots. He doesn’t want any part of this.

Neither do I. “Fuck you,” I say to Davey.

But here’s the thing: From the start I didn’t like the kid’s looks, but now I see it. He does look like me or, I guess, like I used to, back when I was thirty and had hair and was paying taxes and not getting tossed around in the back of a fucking U-Haul. He’s got a long face, dark hair, black eyes, a lump of a nose.

“Well now,” Davey says, getting into it. “Where you from, Jimmy?”

Jimmy looks trapped. He’s gotta work with us all day, though, which means he has to play. “Reno.”

“Oh!” Davey says, and Jesús and the other guys, too, because they all know: I lived there for a year, about thirty years back.  

Davey’s laughing fit to bust a pipe. “Oh, we got a situation here, Jimmy. Mick’s told us allll about the fine ladies of Reno. Yes, he has.”

Now everyone’s laughing—but something clicks in the kid’s eyes.

I say to him, “Will you shut these assholes up? Am I your goddamned pops?”

“Fuck if I know,” Jimmy says. He’s got the good sense to make it sound like a joke. “Never met the prick.”

And the whole truck is rocking now, all the dudes are laughing so hard. I shut up, and the kid shuts up, but I sneak looks at him, and he’s thinking hard about it, and now, Christ, so am I.

“Yo, do you even know his name?” Jesús asks.

“Never got told,” Jimmy says.

I wish I could tell you life is fairer than this. But I know better. I don’t believe in Harvey’s god of love and light—not even for a second—but I do believe in luck. Specifically, I believe in bad luck, and I know for damn sure I possess more than a normal share. Every man in this truck would say the same.

Even Jimmy, the kid from Reno who looks like me.

And every man in this truck would also tell you, based on hard experience, that bad luck gets passed on in the fucking genes.
 

•••

 
 
After half an hour the truck stops, and then Harvey opens up the gate and lets us out into the razor-bright sunshine and shows us the job.

Right away we can see it’s going to be a lucrative week. But, Christ, this isn’t gonna be a cakewalk where we paint offices in a strip mall. This one is going to fucking hurt.

We’re looking at an old brick building, four stories high, a quarter of a block wide, on a side street I don’t even begin to recognize. Its windows are covered by metal shutters, every floor. The remains of a plastic sign hangs over our heads, and it says: ——ARD’S GYM. Bernard’s? Leonard’s? Howard’s?—that part of the sign’s been busted in with rocks. The building’s got neighbors just like it on either side. One of them is a boarded-up former liquor store that’s protected by like ten feet of bulletproof glass, and the other place used to be a salon. The bunch of us are white and Mexican. We’re deep in the ’hood now, row houses on the other side of the street, and everywhere I see black dudes peeping out windows at us, and at fat white Harvey in his good overcoat and suit and his shiny little shoes, and I start to wonder if maybe part of our job today is going to be working as Harv’s bodyguards.

Harvey takes a giant keychain out of his overcoat pocket, smiling his crazy smile, and goes to work on the padlock and chain looped through the handles of the front door.

I tell Jesús, “Man.”

Jesús nods toward the new guy—leaning against the truck, looking around and seeing the same shitpile the rest of us are seeing—and puts his hand on my shoulder and whispers, “Sons are a blessing.”

“Fuck you.”

Harvey pushes the door open and says, “All righty!” and we go inside.

Oh fuck, the smell! The place reeks of piss, like old wet alkie-shit, and underneath it all some chemical smell or exotic mold, scratching at the back of my throat. It’s not quite the smell of cooking meth, but it’s in the neighborhood.

Harvey unlocks the window shutters, lets in the light. We follow him, covering our noses. The ground floor is mostly open space. We’re standing next to what was once a greeter’s desk, but the rest of the floor is covered in trash: rolls of old carpet, smashed glass and furniture, bottles and cans and filth. The flooring is hardwood and half pulled up, with a rotted liner and then concrete underneath. Off in the far corners are open plastic buckets, full of dark liquid, and some stacked metal drums.

Next to the door Harvey’s got a wheelbarrow full of hard hats and tools—crowbars and shovels and rolls of plastic leaf bags. He’s also rented a propane salamander. Next to that is an open carton full of brand new dark brown Carhartt overalls, and that gets our dicks hard, let me tell you.

“This, gentlemen,” he says, “is the new home of the Ecstatic Life Church, East Side. Your job is to get it ready for God to move in.”

The church, he tells us, has been saving up for years to expand into this, one of Indy’s poorest and most disadvantaged neighborhoods. They bought the building for a song because of how much work it needs.

He tells us the place needs to be gutted, all four floors, top to bottom. Trash removed, flooring stripped, walls torn all the way down to framing—though it looks like some enterprising citizens have already scavenged a lot of the copper pipe and wire, when they weren’t pissing in those buckets. It’s up to us to finish the job, chew through this place like maggots, take it down to bone.

Harvey says, “Then, alas, the city is going to need us to show we used licensed electricians and plumbers and so on, but in a few months we’ll have you back to paint and finish.”

Alas!

Still. Harvey’s offering us a lot of steady work here. That’s why none of us is ever going to care that this place might not have officially sold yet, and probably hasn’t even been officially inspected, and if we strip the place down first, and Harvey and the seller and their appraiser come to an agreement that it came this way, he won’t have to pay pros for removal of lead and asbestos. He’s slick, Harv. We know his game.

We put on hard hats with headlamps and follow Harv to the back, to a loading dock and receiving bay. He lifts the shrieking corrugated door and outside in the alley is a semi-trailer, empty and waiting.                     

“There you go,” Harv tells us. “I’ll drop off sandwiches and coffee at lunchtime.”

He bounces on his feet, rubs his hands. And that’s our cue. “Grab a shovel, shitbag,” I say to Jimmy. “Here we go.”

But he’s already moving, he’s got a crowbar in his hand, like he can’t even hear my voice.
 

•••

 
 
We work hard, all day, and the job’s exactly as shitty as I suspected. The top three floors are jammed full of trash and old furniture; we’re doing one at a time. The fourth floor we can barely enter, and it stinks worse than the others. We spend all day on the ground floor, swinging our crowbars, ripping up strips of flooring.

I don’t say anything to Jimmy all day, and he says nothing to me.

Five o’clock, we pile into the U-Haul, and Harvey drives us back to the corner. And from there I walk a few blocks home.

I live in an old hotel, one that’s been converted into apartments. I got a corner room for four hundred a month, and it’s the nicest place I’ve lived for maybe seven, eight years?—ever since I was shacked up with a gal on the west side: Doreen, fat but she cooked.

Usually Harv’s good for about six hundred bucks’ worth of work a month. I wash dishes some weekends at this all-night pancake house down on Claremont, that picks me up some more, qualifies me for food stamps. I know a guy lets me hang drywall every now and then, when Harvey’s work thins out. I get by.

My apartment is one room and a closet of a bathroom. Shower and a sink so close to the shitter I sit sideways. I got a coffee pot and three cups and two plates and some silverware. I got a mattress and box springs and a change of sheets. I got a little TV picks up sports; I like to watch the Pacers and Colts when I can.

My room is extra-small, which is why it’s cheaper. I got one half-width window, and a card table beside it, so I sit there and blow my smoke outside.

The window looks out over the little parking lot where the black kids deal at night. I don’t buy from them. Davey’s got a connection, and we only meet him together, just in case.

Past the parking lot is a Sam’s Club, and past that is a long, curving overpass rising up to meet the interstate. After dark I sit at my table and read sometimes—mystery books—and smoke. Sometimes I shoot up. Then I like to watch the headlights turn into a streaky lightshow as they climb the overpass.

And yeah, I get it, I know what this sounds like: sad old fuck sitting at his table, watching the pretty lights go somewhere else.

But I’ve been in a lot worse places. I used to drink a lot more than I do. A few years back I was living on the streets after a girlfriend threw me out. I woke up one morning under an overpass like the one out my window, and I’d been beaten so bad I couldn’t open one eye, and I still can’t remember it happening. Only pain and running. I had blood all over me, too—way too much to be mine. I cleaned myself up in a bus station bathroom, and I was stumbling down the sidewalk trying to figure out what the fuck I’d do next when Harvey drove by for the first time. He bought me breakfast, kept pouring coffee. When I wouldn’t go to the hospital he paid for me to live a week in a motel, and that was when I started to dry myself out. When I was ready again, healed up, Harvey got me work. I spent the next year waiting for the cops to come for me, for whatever it was I’d done. But they never did.

So yeah, I like my little table and my little apartment, and I like Harvey’s cash money. I like the lock on my door. I shoot up a lot more than I drink; it feels a lot better than booze for my old bones.

This is what I am and what I have.

Now here’s this kid. This fucking kid, whose life has been shitty enough to bring him to the same goddamned corner, looking at me, seeing something he shouldn’t.

I strip, and I shower the scum and stink off my skin and out of my hair. And fuck it—when I’m scrubbed raw and I’ve eaten a sandwich, I get out my kit. I cook and shoot and sit back in my chair.

Outside on the interstate all the headlights gleam and smear. It’s nice. Because wherever all those people are going, it’s the fuck away from me.
 

•••

 
 
Next day, eight o’clock, we meet at the corner again, load up in the truck. I barely make it in time; I’m still crashing hard. When I rolled out of bed I drank a whole pot of bad coffee and popped some speed, and yes, I know, I’m stripping the gears on my transmission, but once we get this job done and the money’s in my pocket I can spend a whole week in bed coming down.

I’m not a kid anymore, though, and my hands shake, and when I show up at the corner even Davey takes one look at me and lays off.

But then Jimmy shows up—back for more? I’m surprised, I guess—and sits next to me. He’s holding a travel mug full of coffee, wearing the same clothes as yesterday. He doesn’t smell bad, though; he’s living someplace he gets to shower.

“Morning,” he says, as the truck rumbles to life.

I don’t answer him. Jesús lets out his little bark of a laugh.

The kid has to have heard this, but he acts like he hasn’t. “Reno, huh?”

I could tell him to go fuck himself. I could knock the coffee out of his hands.

But I say, “Yeah. For a year or so. I was moving all over then.”

“I was born there.” He looks at me sideways. “Nineteen eighty-two.”

I don’t answer. I was there in ’80, ’81.

“Come on, man,” he says, finally. “No harm in asking. I mean, what are the odds?”

“Fuck off, Jimmy.”

He tenses, then says, “All right. Suit yourself, asshole.”

I can feel everyone’s eyes touching me like little fingers.

By the time the door rattles open and we climb out, I feel weak and brittle and I want a fix about as bad as I’ve ever wanted one, and I hate myself for being stupid, and everyone else goes in the building but Jimmy, he hangs back, until it’s just him and me on the dirty sidewalk getting slapped by the dirty, cold wind. I can almost see the words he’s going to say before he says them.

The poor fuck grew up not knowing his father—he’s lucky, I could tell him, really fucking lucky—but of course he’s got to ask.

“My mother’s name was Marie. Marie Boone?”

I try to bring whatever’s left of the junkyard dog in me to my eyes. That used to do it.  

And you know what? Jimmy stares back. Hands in his pockets, beanpole-skinny, stupid fucking ponytail, and he looks me in the eye, he gives me the dog right back.

“Never heard of her,” I say.

Then I move past him, grab a pair of gloves and a crowbar, and I start breaking shit apart as fast as my head will let me.
 

•••

 
 
Marie. Marie. I don’t know a Marie.

I did, though, know a Mary. Was her last name Boone? Did she live in Reno? Or Portland? Or Boise? Or Colorado Springs?

I been to all those places and more. I left Sacramento when I was seventeen, worked construction all over the West until I was twenty. Spent ten years in St. Louis when I got tired of moving. Finally did get married there, but only for a couple of years, to Helen, and she wanted a baby and that’s when I left.

I’m not a bad-looking guy—even now, at my age. I’ve done my share of fucking, and I’m not done doing it. But not once have I ever wanted kids.

I’m no genius, but I know what I got in me; I know what my grandpop did to my dad; I know what my dad was like, all too well. It’s in me too. I blacked Helen’s eye one night after a bender. Sprained her wrist another time and didn’t remember doing it. I was right to leave her.

She wanted a kid! More of me on this earth. Jesus.  

I’ve wasted my time. That’s pretty goddamned clear. But the best thing I’ve ever done, I figure, is always wear a rubber. I’m a hero only to the kids I never made.

Mary. I remember Mary.

She worked at a Dairy Queen across from a drive-in theater, yes she did. And the drive-in theater was in Sparks, Nevada, right next door to Reno. I was on a crew building a bank down the street. I went to the Dairy Queen every day for lunch that summer. Mary was what, sixteen, seventeen? I remember. She drove a big Impala. I liked that she drove herself places. She had dark hair and big, dark eyes and a husky voice; she sounded like she smoked, but she didn’t. She was a virgin and had the body of a pinup girl, and the first time I unbuttoned her blouse, out on a picnic in a grove of aspen trees, my breath caught and I told her it wasn’t fair, keeping all that hidden.

“You think I don’t know?” she asked me. Gave me a wicked smile when she said it. She said, “What if I’ve been saving it for someone special?”

That poor dumb girl.
 

•••

 
 
One day we got three of us working the downstairs and three of us working the next floor up, where they used to have a ballet studio or some shit—the walls are lined with broken mirrors—and which is packed half-full with old furniture and a bunch of sealed fifty-gallon drums, full of god knows what and heavy as fuck. No power, freight elevator don’t work, so me and Davey have been grunting the drums down the steps to the loading dock.  

Right at the bottom of the stairwell, we lose our grip on one.

The drum rolls down the last two steps, and when it hits bottom one of the sides caves in, probably rusted, and this—this shit starts pouring out of it, something that looks, so help me, like the butterscotch topping at Dairy Queen. It oozes out in a slow pool, and it doesn’t smell like butterscotch, but then again it kind of does, and also—Christ, it smells like sweet, burning rubber, and we all back away from it, and then we’re coughing and our eyes are watering, and all of us are running for the door.

I call Harvey from the pay phone on the sidewalk. There’s an awful coating on the inside of my mouth.

Harvey shows up twenty minutes later, takes one look at us, and walks inside the gym. He lasts only a few seconds, then comes out gagging, a handkerchief over his mouth, his face red like an inflating balloon.

He walks away from us, down the sidewalk, to talk on his cellphone in his happy-Jesus pipsqueak voice.

“Here it comes,” says Davey.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Sooner or later he was gonna fuck us, and this is it.”

After a long discussion with whoever, God maybe, Harvey walks back and claps his hands together. “I’ve got twenty extra dollars, right now, for the man who goes in and tells me how many of those drums there are.”

After a few seconds Jimmy raises his hand.

“Shit,” I say, right as Davey does.

The kid looks at us, real quick, then strips off his shirt, right there on the sidewalk, even though it’s what, maybe twenty degrees out? He wraps his flannel around his face like he’s a fucking desperado about to rob a stagecoach. Under his shirt his skin is gray-white and his ribs are sticking out. It hurts, watching his ribs, the way his pants are tied around his waist with heavy twine.

He sees me watching and gives me a thumbs up. There’s a little fuck you in it. Then he walks inside.   

He’s gone long enough for me to imagine him in there choking to death. To imagine Harvey giving someone else the kid’s twenty to go and bring him out. And then that guy keeling over, and so on and so on.

But Jimmy comes back out, after nearly a half hour. His eyes are red and weeping. He unwraps the shirt from around his chin and slides it back on. Bends over and coughs and spits.

“Sixty-four drums,” he says. “Most up on the fourth floor. They’d locked them up.”

It’s almost funny.

Before Harvey and his church made whatever shady deal it took to get this place, someone else made an even shadier one. A factory somewhere in town ended up with a vat of goop they didn’t want, and—I just know it—hired a bunch of dumb luckless fucks like us to shovel it into drums, and then they found a place to hide it: an old gym in one of the worst neighborhoods in Indianapolis, a place that would stay shuttered for decades. I can see it: A truck pulls up in the middle of the night, a bunch of guys load pallets onto the elevator, jam them into the upstairs room, padlock the door, and walk away whistling and coughing and counting their money.

I wonder what the lungs of those poor shits look like now.

Harvey shakes his head, looks up at the fourth-floor windows behind their metal shutters, then walks down the sidewalk and makes calls again, one after another. He doesn’t often get all pissy, Harvey, but today he’s cold and paying us to stand around and worry about poison, and his lips get wet and his cheeks get red and when he looks back at us his eyes are angry, puffy slits.

“All right,” he says, when he finally comes back to us. “I will pay double-time to any man wants to work overnight. Has to be tonight. I found a place that’ll take these drums if we can get them onto a truck by sunup.”

Double-time: one-sixty for a night’s work.

Jimmy raises his hand. Jesús and Davey and a guy named Rick.

And I surprise myself. I don’t need the money. Not this bad. But once I know the kid’s gonna show, then it’s like I can’t stand the thought of letting him know I didn’t.  

I raise my hand.

Jimmy looks at me, unsurprised, like I’m confessing.
 

•••

 
 
Eight at night and I’m standing back at the corner. The kid’s there, and Davey, and Jesús. Rick’s a no-show, talked to his baby mama and thought better of it, I guess. Jesús has a big, bulging satchel with him. “Look at the craziest motherfuckers in Indy,” he says. “And look what Santa brought for you good boys and girls.”

He unzips the satchel. It’s full of fucking gas masks.

“I got a cousin works at an army surplus,” Jesús says. “These are a rental. Twenty bucks for the night, and they got to be clean when they go back. You break it, you buy it, yeah?”

Hell yes, we pay the twenty. Even the kid, though you can tell he’s thinking about how he doesn’t want to. Counting every penny, like a man trying to blow town as soon as possible. His eyes are still pink from the afternoon.

Harvey doesn’t come for us. Instead it’s a big semi that pulls up to the curb. A guy hops out, big black dude, both fat and strong, like a power-lifter. “You the guys?” he asks.

“The fuck you think,” Davey says.

The guy gives Davey a murder-look and then walks around to the back of the trailer and unlocks the gate and opens it. “Get in.”

Davey’s got a cellphone, and as we ride in the big trailer he opens it, and his face is green and glowy in the light, and his breath shows up as a fog, like he’s smoking. The ride’s better than in the U-Haul, but Jesus Christ it’s scary in there, with all the space around us, and I expect at any time for the truck to stop and the gate to open on an empty field with holes already dug in it, and our driver holding a gun.

“Mick,” says the kid.  

“Not now.”

“No, no.” He taps my hand with something metal. “Take some and pass it on.”

A flask.

I uncap it. Whiskey. I take a good swallow and then cap it and pass it across to Jesús. Davey opens his phone and they both bend their heads over the flask, and then lift their eyes to the kid, and Davey says, “Jimmy, you are a fucking saint.”

“It ain’t much,” Jimmy says. “Kill it.”

The flask makes two circles, and we sit in the dark, booze lighting up our bellies.

The question I’ve been asking myself all day, since we talked this morning, comes out of me then.

“You said was?”

“What?”

“When you were talking about your mom. You said her name was. Like she’s—”

“She’s dead,” he says. “About ten years now.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

I think of my Mary in the summer heat, and I really am.

“Yeah,” Jimmy says.

“She was sick?”

He tells us the story, back in the rocking, creaking trailer. And even in the dark you can feel everybody’s eyes straining to make the kid out, watching him take shape.
 

•••

 
 
Is my Mary his Marie? If so, I got to add her to the list.

My friend Louie from Florida is on it. He drilled into a live wire.

The kid Ben I played cards with, on Wednesday nights in St. Louis, stopped showing up and we found out he had AIDS; basically he crawled off to die by himself.                      

The guy first got me high in Chicago, I mean really high, showed me how to shoot up—he got killed by the gang he dealt for. Cops found him poked full of holes in a Dumpster behind a paint store.

A woman I knew here in Indy, Tanya, she got her throat cut in her car. That was how we found out she was hooking.

Guy worked with us for a while, Pete, went the old-fashioned way, the best way: went to sleep and his heart gave out.

Jimmy tells his story and I feel tired, old and tired well past the way I ought to feel, starting a double shift. His mom was working as a cocktail waitress and met a guy, a customer, and married him. A real piece of work, a long-haul trucker. And this guy, the stepfather, after a few years of practice, he beat Marie to death when Jimmy was eighteen years old. Jimmy was the one who found her. She’d been dead a couple of days; her boss called him to go check on her. The stepfather was already on the run, and he got shot down by cops on the side of the interstate outside of San Antonio.

Just about the worst, most sordid little story there is.

If Mary got knocked up, if it was me who did it—

I told her when we met that I was going to leave at the end of that summer. She laughed about it, I remember that. We’ll just have to enjoy the time we’ve got, she said.

But I left a few weeks early, a friend called me from Portland, said he had a good job, and—

I was nineteen. I got the call at seven at night, and they needed me the next morning, so I drank some coffee, popped a couple of uppers, and hit the road.

I didn’t call her. I didn’t leave her a way to call me.

I never called any of them. Why would I?

I never told her I loved her, because I didn’t. I never promised her anything, I never left any kind of mess she wouldn’t get over; I figured she’d go back to school in the fall, surprise her prom date with some moves I’d taught her, then head off to college . . .

That’s where I want to see her now: where she’s always been, whenever I happened to remember her. In college. Walking to football games, holding hands with some future doctor.

Sitting in class, raising her hand to answer a question, hair tied back in a long black ponytail, and whenever she’s called on, she’s always got the answer, she’s always smiling, she’s always right.
 

•••

 
 
Our driver finally stops. We hear the dude’s boots as he walks around to the gate and lifts it up. He’s pulled around in back of the old gym, the dock lit up by a single streetlamp. Pissy little snowflakes are falling through the light.

“Right,” he says. “Harv says you all gonna fill the truck and tell me when it’s full. I call him, he comes and picks you up.” He waves a cellphone at us like it’s Harvey himself. Then he unlocks the back door of the gym.

The stink rolls out right away, burnt sugar and chemical hell.

Jesús hands us our gas masks. The driver watches us fit them on each other, then goes and sits in the cab.

We have to use Davey’s cellphone to find our way through the first floor, over to the generator Harv rolled in a couple of days ago. We fire it up. We’ve only got one big lamp, and it’s on the first floor; we’re going to have to do the upstairs work with headlamps. We start the propane salamander, and as it spits out its tongue of flame, I wonder whether the fumes around us are going to explode. But they don’t. The drum we dropped earlier is still lying on its side in a mound of scaled-over goo. Three floors up are over sixty more drums. Each of them weighs a couple of hundred pounds, at least.

What the fuck are we doing here?

The mask smells like aluminum filings and rubber and the gummy taste of my mouth, and yeah, a little residual bit of the chemical stink, and even though it’s freezing, I’ve already got trickles of sweat sliding coldly down my cheekbones. My breath’s coming too fast in my ears.

I ask Jesús how long these masks are good for. “My cousin didn’t say,” he says, eyes wide behind his plastic goggle lenses.

It’s Jimmy who gets us moving. He taps me on the shoulder. “We gonna work, or we gonna work?”

That’s the question, isn’t it? We follow his lead. We work.
 

•••

 
 
We take a break at two in the morning. We’ve managed to load only a little more than twenty of the drums onto the truck. We’re outside, smoking, leaning against the brick wall of the gym, sweat starting to freeze and stiffen our coveralls. Maybe the mask is working, I dunno, but after four hours my throat had started to feel like someone stuck a wire brush down through it to my lungs. All of us are coughing and spitting.

We’re going more slowly than we want to—every hour, we have to run outside and rip off the masks, and back alley air and cigarette smoke never tasted so fucking sweet.

Jimmy has figured out a system: Two guys walk a drum to the top of the stairs. Jimmy’s rigged ramps out of old sheets of plywood down each of the flights, so we can slide the drums down instead of walking them, using a kind of harness made of a web of old nylon straps. Took a while to get it set up, but now we can get a drum downstairs in ten minutes, while the next team gets another ready at the top of the stairs. It’s gonna be tight. But we’re gonna get it done.    

I’m standing next to Jimmy, and I hear myself start talking.

“You work hard,” I tell him. “Sorry we give you shit.”

He hacks and spits onto the street. “Doesn’t bother me.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t got to prove you’re tough anymore. Some fucker gives you a problem, don’t think you got to be quiet about it.” I spit too. My lungs ache.

“Thanks,” he says.

“Sure.”

And that’s when I ask him: “What was she like? Your mom?”

You can see him thinking about what to say. Like this is some other dark and sticky and poisonous shit he doesn’t want to breathe.

He says, “You know, I don’t know enough about her. I always thought I did, but now she’s dead, I know I didn’t.”

I remember Mary’s dark hair pulled up off her neck. I remember sitting next to her at the Dairy Queen when her shift was done and the way, when I held her, she smelled like sweat and ice cream. She used to tell me knock-knock jokes as we sat in the back of my truck. The cornier the better. And here, for the first time in thirty years, I can hear her laugh, and it’s like she’s standing right next to me.

“Was she funny?” I ask.

“Why?”

“Was she?”

He says, “Maybe when I was little. I don’t know.” It kills him to say this. “We didn’t always get along. When I was older.”

I want to tell him she was funny. And pretty. She was a real girl—a real woman. But can I bring myself to say that? Your mom was something else, before you came along.

Before she met me.

“Better get back to it,” I say.

“Yeah.” Before he puts on his mask, he says, “She really liked music. We had a lot of records. Simon and Garfunkel, ABBA.” The kid smiles. “She liked Dolly Parton. She tried to teach me to dance once, to Dolly fucking Parton.”

“Sounds like she was a good woman,” I say.

He looks at me for a long time.

“She had it rough,” he says, then puts on his mask, and without waiting, walks back inside.
 

•••

 
 
At four in the morning I start to lose my concentration. Maybe the mask isn’t working; maybe I’m breathing too much of this shit. Every muscle I have is screaming at me. I know it’s true of the other guys, too.

Even so, we’ve started joking at each other, clowning, except we’re wearing the masks and no one can understand a fucking thing anyone else is saying, so we’re just barking and growling and cussing all the drums. Maybe it’s because Jimmy’s so serious, and I don’t want to think about what I’m thinking about, but I’m shouting louder than anybody.

I know this feeling. Oh god, do I know it.

It’s spending the last of your money because you know you can’t pay rent no matter what. It’s ordering another round of drinks after everyone knows they have to go home.

It’s knowing you’re going to a bar to drink all of a goddamned paycheck.

It’s—

It’s looking into a woman’s eyes, right when you’re about to blow.

The shit is killing us. It’s eating at our lungs, putting cancer in us. It has to be.

The worst thing is that it’s all our fault that we’re here. This is all on us. No one held a gun to our heads when we were twelve and said, “You do everything in your power to make sure you clean up toxic fucking waste when you’re fifty.” No. This is ours. Me, Davey, Jesús, Jimmy—this is each of us reaping what we’ve fucking sowed.

But do you know what it’s like, to have gone this far down? To see the End out there? When you’re speeding toward a brick wall the size of the fucking world and there’s no time to stop? Why not yell and take your hands off the fucking wheel?                       

I’m here to tell you, there’s a joy in it. A pure, laughing joy.

And that’s me, standing with my hands on my hips, cussing and laughing into my mask, right in front of the loading dock, the night air freezing on my skin. I’m looking out at the street, not paying attention, when someone hits me from behind, takes me down into a pile of old plastic sheeting like a fucking linebacker.

It’s hard to tell what’s going on, behind my mask, but under the plastic is something hard and edgy that gouges at my ribs and makes me scream, and someone’s on top of me, and a bright light in my eyes.

I pull myself to my elbows. Jimmy’s lying on top of me, struggling up too, and I punch him in the ear before I can even think, and he goes down, holding up his hands, and then Davey’s got his arms around me, saying “Easy, easy, hoss!”

Fuck him!”

But then Davey’s showing me: a drum got loose, rolled free down the ramp we made at the last flight, aimed right at the backs of my legs. Jimmy tackled me out of the way—or that drum would have pushed me out of the dock and then landed on me. Or steamrolled me flat on its way.

Jimmy’s crouched against the wall of the dock. He’s trying to look tough about it, but I staggered him.

I’m both sorry to my bones and a little proud that the kid took it.

We walk outside, pull off our masks. The stray drum is lodged against the wheels of the trailer, intact, so there’s a miracle. Everyone looks a little guilty, a little spooked. Davey, Jesús, they’re both breathing hard, bug-eyed. They were the ones lost control of the fucking drum. And Jimmy just happened to be there, watching out for me.

But I’m the guy at fault. I was the fucking numbnuts not paying attention.  

“How hard did I get you?” I ask.

Jimmy touches a hand to his jaw.

“Pretty good right,” he says. He’s crying. The tears are leaving filthy tracks down his cheeks.

“I owe you,” I say.

“Why start now?” he says.
 

•••

 
 
And then we’re done. The sky’s getting light when we roll the last drum to the stairs, and we wedge it through the doorway and down and down and down, across plywood ramps gone sticky and cracked. It doesn’t go easy. This last drum is dented and gets wedged up against a step. My gas mask fogs up and something pings in my elbow and I get one more cut, to add to the dozen I’ve already gotten and a squashed and pulsing thumb. It’s me and Jimmy, and he’s taking the downstairs position, and technically that’s the harder one, but my back is screaming and we have to rest at every landing and Jimmy says nothing, and I’m grateful, and when he’s got the whole weight of the drum on his knees and calves I do my best, thinking, dont let it fall, dont let it fall, dont let it fall.

And then we’re in the clear. Davey and Jesús roll it down the ramp and across the floor to the truck. It’s the last one, so I half expect it to disintegrate, give us another hour’s work scooping butterscotch into Hefty bags.

But it rolls like a good little poison drum all the way to the truck, and we shut it in, and the big-armed driver comes around, stinking of pot, and padlocks the truck shut, and walks back to the cab and gets in. He drives off without a word. Thank you, too, sir.

We watch him ease the trailer around the corner and away. Where to, who the fuck knows. Some landfill. Or to a junkyard, a big lot full of abandoned trailers, their identification stripped, the manifests shredded. Twenty years from now another bunch of fuckers are going to get told, “Hey, assholes, guess what the fuck we found”—and by then maybe those drums will have rotted through, who knows.

I say a little prayer for them, those poor sad fucks, and wonder whether twenty years ago someone unloading these drums here said one for me.

After ten minutes Harvey drives up in his big car. He gets out, beaming. “Miracle workers,” he tells us. He opens a leather case and hands us each stacks of bills from inside. I count mine. Two hundred bucks. Same as all the others, and more than he’d promised.

“I threw in a bonus for hazard pay,” Harv says.

He won’t go away until we thank him, and Jimmy’s smart enough to know it. “Yeah, thanks a bunch, Harv. Real generous.”

“I won’t expect you all at the corner for a couple of days,” he says. “You boys go get some rest. I’ve got a couple of cabs coming for you now.”

I think, not for the first time, about how much other money Harvey’s got in his leather case and what I might get with it, and whether that much junk—to say nothing of the sheer fucking joy I’d get from popping Harvey’s head off his shoulders and riding around the city in his big fucking car—would be worth the rest of my life in prison.

I think, not for the first time, that prison’s probably inevitable.

And here, again, is that giddiness. The anything’s-possible feeling. The thought that if I’m going to go out, I should go out with the biggest possible fucking bang.

For the first time, Harvey might see it in me. In all of us.

He shuts the case, drops it in his car. “Well, goodnight, boys.” Moving a little too fast, he drops himself behind the wheel and starts the engine, and his big Mercedes slides away down the alley like a submarine sinking slowly into deep water.

“One of these days,” Jesús says when he’s gone.

“Yeah,” Davey says.

“I want a drink,” Jimmy says.

Who knows why I say what I do? “Come with me,” I tell him.

He thinks it over, and then he does.
 

•••

 
 
Jimmy and me take one of Harvey’s cabs to my apartment. The cabbie must have gotten a big wad of cash up front, because we stink like alien fucking life. He keeps his window cracked and lights a cigarette.

“Where you living?” I ask Jimmy.

“Guy I know. He’s got a couch. Need my own place.” Jimmy taps his wallet. “This helps.”

“Was it worth it?”

Jimmy shakes his head. “Shit, man, you tell me.”

“I don’t know. Might never breathe right again.”

“I think we probably killed ourselves tonight,” Jimmy says softly. “Just in slow motion.”

The cabbie’s listening to some kind of jump jazz that makes it hard to feel too sad. Cold air comes into the cab like long strips of sharp metal.

“You’re a smart guy,” I say. “You know how to work. Why the fuck are you even here?”

“That’s my business,” Jimmy says.

And that’s code, code Jimmy’s earned the right to use with me, with any of us. Not one guy on our crew has ever spelled it out for anyone else. You learn a guy’s story over time, at work, when he wants to tell you. Davey, Jesús, after all our time together? They don’t know about Helen, about the overpass and the blood on my hands.

I should leave it alone.

“I can keep my mouth shut,” I say. “Whatever you’re dealing with.”

Jimmy smirks. “What are you, my dad?”

For a minute, driving along like this, the sun pink in the sky, jazz on the radio, our work done, I can just about imagine saying, Yeah.
 

•••

 
 
We’re in my apartment twenty minutes later, carrying bags of fast food breakfast. I pull out a chair for Jimmy at the card table, and he sits in it, looks out the window into the parking lot, looks up at the ceiling, the shelves, my little unmade bed and its puddle of blanket. He asks me how much I pay in rent. I tell him.

“You gotta apply?” he asks.

“Not if you know people and you can drop five hundred up front. You want, I could put in a word.”

He nods, and I can tell he asked to be polite.

Because really he’s going to leave. He’s probably going to save up for a few more weeks, days maybe, and then jump town. Find another couch, or a YMCA, start over. And I guess maybe he’s running—we’ve had a few on the crew like that—and if he’s running, he already took a risk with us, with me. Telling us where he’s from, his mother’s name.

If I was him, I’d clear out as soon as I could buy a bus ticket. That’s the smart move.

I pull a half-bottle of Beam and two Dixie cups out of my cabinet. “I got this,” I say.

He takes a bite of McMuffin and nods. He pulls a bag of weed out of his jacket pocket and puts it on the table, raises his eyebrows. And I will not say no to weed.

We eat and drink and smoke, saying nothing for a long time. I have no idea what to say. When I speak, I tend to make problems, and even though I can see him getting agitated, impatient, I want him to understand this, to know that this is a good time, a nice moment; and look at me, an old man wanting to explain something to a kid, wanting to give him something more lasting than booze. It’s terrifying, this feeling.

He says, “Mom told me my dad worked construction. That he was a fling. Said he never even knew she was pregnant. He’d blown town.”

“What else?” I ask, before I can stop myself.

“That he was handsome. A charmer, she said. ‘Trouble.’ She always told me I looked like him.”

“Trouble.”

“What do you think?” he asks. “Come on, man, no one else is here. It’s not like I’d try to shake you down for money.”

He’s right. No one else would know. What would it cost me to say yes?

Nothing, part of me says.

Everything, says another. Because if I really am his dad, he might stay. And how would that be better for him? What could he see in the next ten years of my life that would do him a single goddamned bit of good? When have I ever been any good for anybody?

I think of my kit, hidden in the bathroom. About the money in my pocket and the time off from work.

About Marie. About the boy’s mother.

“You’d be the sort of kid I’d want,” I say. “But I’m not the guy.”

“Bullshit.”

“I was in Reno in ’83. It don’t add up.”

His face falls, and watching it breaks my heart.

But I know, in my heart, he doesn’t want the truth. What he wants is something no power on earth can give him, which is his life to do over. Neither of us is getting that, and I don’t want to be the one to tell him.

At least he’s young. He’s got time to pull himself upright. A chance.

“I owe you for today,” I say. I look him in the eye for as long as I can bear it. “I wish I had more to give.”

He stares past me, out the window. I think I see Mary in his dark eyes, in the gloss of his hair. His ear is red and swollen where I hit him.

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” he says.

“I’m sorry.”

He stands, gathers up his jacket and keys. He’s already stiff from the work and limps on his way to the door.

“Take care of yourself, Mick,” he says.

“You too,” I tell him.

I don’t know whether he means it, but I do.
 

•••

 
 
When he’s gone I lock the door and take down my kit and start to cook. I sit in my chair and shoot up. I let it take me.

And before too long, here’s Mary. Mary who is Marie. She’s walking beside me, we’re walking along a thin dirt trail, and when we get to an aspen grove she likes we put down a blanket and sit, and she unpacks peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a bag of potato chips that she has folded over very precisely and closed with a clothespin, and two bottles of beer. There are ants, I remember. I keep reaching over to pluck them off her shins and knees and the white tops of her feet. It’s summertime, and beads of sweat are on her upper lip, and her dark hair is stuck to her forehead in strands.

As I’m unbuttoning her shirt she says to me, “I don’t do this . . . this kind of thing.”

And I say, “It’s OK, I do.”

She laughs, and for the first time I see something a little naughty in her, to go along with the part of her that’s sweet. Finding that out about a woman has never done me any favors.

It’s like she’s right here, right in front of me. I wish I could make myself say I’m sorry, but I can’t.

She says to me, “Will it hurt?”

I shake the blanket free of ants and then lay her down on top of it.

“I can’t lie to you,” I say, and kiss the sweat off her lip. “It probably will.”

Christopher Coake is the author of You Came Back (2012) and We’re in Trouble (2005), which won the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for a first work of fiction. In 2007 he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. A native of Indiana, Coake is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he directs the MFA program in creative writing.