TED FLANAGAN



GRINDING

         

The job was dead end, no doubt about it. Pure assembly line, days spent buzzing down imperfections in metal cylinders that were eventually turned into oil filters. It was piece work, less than fifty cents per, but Kane was fast and he doubled the hourly output of anyone else on the line. Some resented him for it, the ones that felt the heat when the line supervisors brought up the stats, but Kane didn’t bother with them.

The job made him happy. He had no worries, save for skinning his knuckles when his attention wandered around the spinning grinding wheel. He often found himself distracted by his coworkers. They were a collection of alcoholics and junkies and ex-junkies or reformed alcoholics. By most standards, they were failures, relegated to menial jobs and low pay.

Kane didn’t think that assessment cruel. Brutal in its honesty perhaps, but Kane was one of them so he felt he had the right. He also admired their consistency, the way most of them continued to come to work, day after day, with little complaint except about how the girl at the Dipper screwed up their coffee order that morning, or the building Super was being a prick about the hot water usage, or how the ex was screwing with visitation again. They complained of things, but not the big things. Their worlds seemed small to Kane, and he liked that, felt it was a manageable scale.

They weren’t his friends, not exactly, but he could count on them for one thing. These men would likely die of natural causes, or accidents, or the bottle or the pill or the needle or one too many hot dogs clogging their arteries.

And no time soon.

They’d endured, their bodies were scrap iron hinged together by dull silver nuts and bolts, their limbs shrouded by grey newsprint and insides that accommodated and yielded to all of life’s vagaries, resisted nothing, malleable like that sponge on the late night infomercial, the one that returns to its original form time and again, no matter the pressure or force applied to it or how you wrung it out.

These men were like that. They got divorced or they stayed in loveless marriages. Kane watched as their kids stopped talking to them or moved to California or got on drugs, maybe all three, and their lives were hemmed in on all sides within the confines of either solitary or communal desperation with a woman—named Madge or Dottie or Peg—unfortunate enough to settle, too. And yet every day they came and tapped the rough grey metal cans against spinning graphite and burnished the filters, their burrs and blisters no match for friction and will.

Best of all, none of them, Kane knew, were destined to be taken apart in a flash by a buried roadside artillery shell. And even though he didn’t love them, at least he had that small comfort. Kane was thinking of these things early on a searing summer day in the factory floor, when he heard Jones yelling for him over the whine of the machines and the clanging of hollow steel.

“Hey rat racer,” Jones called out. “Rat racer, what are you going to do for lunch?”

Kane smiled, didn’t take his eyes off the grinder as its graphite wheel spun at tens of thousands of revolutions per minute right below his hands. He shrugged.

Jones had a name for everyone, and his nicknames almost never made sense. One guy he called “Super Salad Shooter,” or another “Super Dude,” neither for any particular reason. He’d given Kane the nickname “Rat Racer” the day he’d come to work in his younger brother’s souped-up Celica, the one with the BBS wheels, a stereo system worth double the car, and a massive wing on the back. A real rat-racer, Jones had called the car, and the name stuck.

“Nothing special,” he said. “I think mom sent in boiled eggs.”

“Fitzy brought a bottle. You in?”

“Yeah, I believe I could have a snort.”

The morning proceeded apace and when the lunch horn sounded, a small band gathered at the lowered tailgate of Jones’s weathered Dodge pickup. He raised a bottle of Wild Turkey over his head and waved it at the sun.

“Courtesy of Fitzy!” he said. “May he rest in peace!”

Kane looked around.

“Where is Fitzy?” he asked. “I thought you said he brought this in?”

Jones shrugged.

“He did. Sort of.”

The group chuckled. Jones took a long swig and handed the bottle to wheezy and rheumatic Reese, who wiped its rim on his soiled t-shirt and drank.

“Where is he?” Kane said.

“Ain’t you heard Rat Racer?” asked Desjardins, a toothless Montreal native. “He fucking died. He’d had this in his locker for a month. We liberated it.”

“Died?”

“Died,” Connoyer said. “Hauled off. Signed out. Taking the dirt nap. Jonesie found him in his room at the Y yesterday when he didn’t show up for work. Thinks he might have had one of them viruses.”

Jones shook his head, hocked up a loogie and spat into the black mud on the edge of the parking lot.

“Worst thing I ever saw,” he said. “Fitzy was black and blue all over like he’d had the shit kicked out of him. He was just lying there, eyes wide open. His right arm was out like this, straight up, like he was reaching for something. I’ll never forget that shit.”

The bottle came to Kane and he drank. The booze burned his chest and nose, teared his eyes. He thought of diesel fuel. Something burning in a tree. Hiss and pop. He tried to think of Fitzy but he was back at the tree with the twisted branches.

“At least he had the liquor,” Connoyer said. He waved at the bright blue sky. “Lord I’m already feeling this shit. You know the Wild Turkey was a bad idea. Always makes me crazy.”

“You’re crazy enough without it,” Desjardins said.

“Like a fox!”

“Like a dipshit fox!”

Kane took another swig and handed the bottle back to Jones.

“Are there—, will there be—, what are the arrangements?” Kane asked.

The men shrugged. No one said a word. Jones spat again into the bushes. The bottle was almost empty. Jones finished it off and threw it into the river that meandered behind the factory. Conversation died. When the six men walked back across the parking lot and into the factory, they walked in silence.

“Not sure why I’m not feeling this,” said Connoyer, the only one who spoke. “Usually Wild Turkey makes me crazy.”

Kane went to the grinder without joy. Fitzy was the closest thing he had at Emberton Industries to a friend. Fitzy understood. Fitzy had come home from Vietnam in the early seventies and the only time Kane ever talked to anyone at the factory—or at home, where he lived with his parents, or church, or at Bender’s, his favorite bar—about his fifteen months in the sandbox, it was over a bottle with Fitzy on the loading dock out back.

He never asked Kane about any of it. Kane never asked Fitzy about Vietnam. When the stories came, it was like getting oil from shale. It could be done. It wasn’t easy. When Jones had heard about Kane’s part in the war he wanted to know it all. He wanted to know about the heat and the smells and the chow a little bit, wanted to know a lot if Kane had gotten any pussy because of his medals, but most of all, he wanted to know one simple thing: Had Kane killed anyone?

“When did you serve?” Kane had asked instead, when Jones had finally gotten to the point one day on lunch break, asking the question outright.

“I woulda gone like Fitzy, but I had the rheumatizz,” Jones replied. “Must have been totally kickass. I bet you smoked a hundred of those fuckers, didn’t you Rat Racer? I would have, sure as shit.”

“I didn’t kill anyone,” Kane said.

“No?” Jones asked, eyes wide, hands out in supplication and disbelief.

“Nope. No one. I got to see my friends die instead.”

The lunch room had emptied. There was a slowdown on the grinding line. Jones and Kane had some extra time before they had to return. The two men sat at the end of a Formica table under buzzing fluorescent lights. An RC Cola machine hummed behind them.

“But Fitzy said you was some kind of hero or some shit. Had a lot of medals.”

“I have a few, but I was a corpsman,” Kane said. “I was in the Navy. I deployed with a Marine rifle company, went to places like Fallujah, Ramadi, but my job was to take care of them. Never fired a shot. Helped bring home a few of the guys. Lost some, too.”

Even Jones didn’t have the courage to ask Kane about that, about the living and drinking and marching and sweating and fighting with the same thirty guys for two, three years before going to a place where a soda can beside the road might mark the spot where an artillery shell lay buried, and then the sand exploded without warning on another day so brutal with heat and the Hummer with Stark and Lenox and Harnish and the Lieutenant aboard rose in a burst of dark dirt becoming dust and orange flame, the truck twisted and buckled like a neighborhood mailbox cherry bombed on July Fourth, and Kane rushing to pull out his friends, some of them like Stark, the guy still on fire for Christ’s sake, it’s the part of the dream that wakes him every night, the way he had to beat down the flames and scream for a medevac and start intravenous lines and tighten tourniquets and remember how he gave more pain medicine than a human should be able to stand and yet Harnish—damned, burned Harnish—still howled, not like a man but like a dog run over by a car, his only functional nerves after the flames and the blast being the ones that pulsed with the most searing, intractable misery.

The lieutenant—well, they never found any of him at all.

No, there was no way he was explaining any of that to Jones.

And now Fitzy was gone and as Kane ground more oil filter cans into perfection than the rest of the crew put together, he pondered how a man like Fitzy, no hero any more but still someone who deserved to be remembered—the worst thing Kane can summon is the thought that you’d end up in a grave and no one would think to give the fact a moment’s thought, as if your entire life never even fucking happened—a guy like that ends up dead and alone in a weekly-rate, downtown fleabag efficiency by the rail yard. He turned the grinder off and walked across the factory floor and bounded up the metal staircase two steps at a time, to the doorway that opened onto the main hallway containing the factory’s administrative offices.

He found the office of Lipsky, the shift manager, at the end of the hall. Everything about the place screamed industrial thrift. The threadbare grey carpet, stained where the foot traffic was highest, fluorescent lights humming in beige metal fixtures hung from a field of drop-down ceiling panels. Kane knocked on the hollow core wood door, the same kind of door Fitzy’s landlord had put in at the Y, Kane guessed, the kind you can buy for nineteen bucks apiece at Jerry’s Hardware.

“Come in,” a voice called from within.

Kane opened the door and entered the small office. Lipsky, huge Lipsky, Lipsky the five time winner of the local Highland Games and who ate the sixty ouncer at Lemire’s Steakhouse on the first attempt, then had dessert, Lipsky who it was said could lift a Volkswagen Beetle over his head, Lipsky sat hunched like a polar bear over his dented industrial metal desk. His hands were balled into fists, a pen all but invisible in the massive paw that was his left hand as he filled out a form. He was so immense that the desk chair disappeared underneath. To see him was to think he’d mastered levitation.

“Goddam paperwork,” Lipsky said.

“That’s why you get paid the big bucks,” Kane said.

Lipsky grunted.

“That’s what I keep telling my bride.”

“The beautiful Lorraine.”

“The beautiful Lorraine,” Lipsky said.

“How goes that thing? The project?”

“We’re still trying,” Lipsky said. “The doctors are optimistic, say there’s no reason for the trouble. I’m not shooting blanks and Lorraine seems to have intact plumbing. No answers. There are other tests, better doctors, but getting treated for this baby shit? Ex. Spen. Sive. I’m saving. We’ll get there.”

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Kane said.

“Fucking A. Now what can I do for you?”

“Your heard about Fitzy?”

“I did. Damn shame. He was a good guy.”

“He was a good worker.”

“He was a terrible worker! Led the place in sick calls, defects, truancy, drinking on the job and general carousing. But he was always friendly, never caused any trouble, and all the hell he went through as a young guy. He deserved some slack.”

“Have any arrangements been made?” Kane asked.

Lipsky put down his pen and leaned back in his chair. He bit his lower lip and blinked his eyes.

“There are none,” Lipsky said.

“At all?”

“At all. He never married. No kids. Had a sister in Tacoma on his emergency contact sheet, but when we called all we got was a message that the number was no longer in service.”

Kane was quiet for a moment.

“That doesn’t seem fair,” he said. “We should do something.”

“Like what?” Lipsky asked.

“A memorial. A service. He did two tours in the jungle. Someone ought to recognize that. He lived a long life. He was here. Someone should be his witness.”

“Agreed.”

Kane and Lipsky sat in silence. Kane had drunk from Fitzy’s purloined bottle. Reese, goddam Reese, had wiped the bottle with that grimy shirt before he drank, Kane thought. All of them thieves now, rat-fucking a dead man’s locker.

“I’ll do it,” Kane said. “Lunch tomorrow. We’ll send Fitzy off. If we’re the closest thing he’s got to a family, then it’s up to us.”

“Ok. I’ll have Dottie order a platter from the deli. No booze, though. You tell those guys. This is a remembrance, not an Irish wake. They need to plan on being back on the job right after.”

The next morning Kane got to work early, an hour before sunrise, thirty minutes before his shift began. He scouted a location on the bluff overlooking the river. The banks there were least covered in trash and castoff car tires and grocery carts and car batteries. The was a patch of green grass bordered by black mud, and in the middle of the shallow river, water lapped against the shell of a discarded car tire.

At ten fifteen and for the first time in his employment with the factory, Kane took his morning break. He walked to the highest point of the hillock and opened the brown duffle bag he’d brought with him. Kane pulled out a Mossberg shotgun and a big hunting knife and a roll of duct tape. Kane held the knife against the barrel of the gun, blade down, with the tip of the knife about six inches below the muzzle, then began wrapping with duct tape.

When he was done Kane tested the knife, made sure it didn’t wiggle, then plunged it into the ground so that the butt of the shotgun faced toward the sun as it approached noon. Kane reached into his duffle and took out an antique US Army helmet that he’d bought years ago at a flea market and placed it on top of the buttstock.

He walked back inside to Fitzy’s locker and pulled out a pair of worn leather steel-toed work boots, splattered with decades of grease and metal shavings and toil. Returning to the monument, Kane placed the boots at the base of the rifle. After touching the tableaux up, Kane removed from around his neck a thin chain on which were hung two dog tags, and draped the necklace over the helmet.

They crowded around in a brown bag circle, Jones having gone to McDonald’s to get food for the half-dozen present for the service. Kane stood by the display, his hands clasped behind his back and grasping a creased and stained camouflage-covered Gideon’s Bible.

“Norman Fitzhugh was one of us,” Kane began. He looked out over the river, where brown water eddied against the old tire, building current upon current, before unwinding itself and slipping away.

Jones spit into the mud. Connoyer chewed on his burger, an idle hand picking at the gums where his front lower teeth were missing. Reese, hands in pockets, swayed and wheezed. Lipsky, in short sleeves and tie, stood behind them, hands in his pockets and head bowed, a supplicant though no one prayed.

“Fitzy was born in Akron,” Kane continued. “I don’t know anything about his family, or his schooling, what sports he played or cars he owned or whether he got laid. Those things all happened long before the one part of Fitzy’s life I do know about. Fitzy was one of us, he didn’t achieve much in life, but the things he did accomplish, he came by honestly. He wasn’t a man prone to bragging, but Fitzy was rightfully proud of his service in the U.S. Army in Vietnam.”

Kane unclasped his hand and unfolded a piece of paper that had been quartered and tucked into the small Gideon text.

“Fitzy didn’t talk much about his service, but the city’s Veteran’s Agent told me some,” Kane said. He placed a bulky pair of black-framed eyeglasses on his head, cocked it to the right, and squinted at the paper. “You’ll have to bear with me a bit here. Reading’s been hard ever since the shrapnel got in there. Fitzy did two tours in Vietnam, from May 1968 until February of 1970, when he was hit for the last time, the one that put him out of the war. He was a member of the airborne. He came home with two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars with combat ‘v’ for valor, and two Purple Hearts. Shortly after his discharge he came here to Emberton Industries, and worked Grinder Number Four for the rest of his career. For the rest of his life. He liked bowling and domestic beer. Also Petula Clark.”

Kane re-folded the sheet and slipped it into the back pocket of his jeans. Connoyer kicked at the dirt while Reese took a puff of his asthma medicine from an inhaler. Jones spit. Lipsky remained with his head bowed.

“Since we’re here to remember Norman Fitz—, Fitzy, some words from the Bible seemed appropriate,” Kane said.

He opened the book.

“This is from Revelations.”

“’The Revelation,’” Reese said.

“What?” Kane asked.

“The book,” Reese answered. “It’s actually called ‘The Revelation of St. John The Divine.’ Not ‘Revelations.’ A lot of people make that mistake. I married a real religious girl once. Briefly.”

Kane nodded.

“A reading,” he said. “This is from The Revelation. ‘He that is unjust, let him be unjust still. And he which is filthy, let him be filthy still. And he that is righteous, let him be righteous still. And he that is holy, let him be holy still. And behold, I come quickly, and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.’”

Kane closed the book and reached down to a small compact disc player and pushed a button. From its single speaker came a trumpeter’s tin-flat rendition of “Taps.” Kane stood at attention, and the rest followed suit, each in their fashion.

Jones stood slump-shouldered, his pear-shaped belly sagging over his waistline and the greasy brown belt that held his pants up. Slack-jawed Connoyer crumpled the hamburger wrapper and stood ramrod straight. Reese continued the swaying wheeziness. Lipsky, with his Popeye forearms and darkened brow overarching dark eyes, stood at perfect parade-ground attention.

Afterward they ate greasy bologna that sweated in the sun and cheese cubes that squished like children’s play clay. They ate soggy crackers and there was lemonade. When it was over the group dispersed. Lipsky waved Kane over.

“The YMCA called,” he said. “They need Fitzy’s apartment. Someone needs to go over there and clean it up. I’d ask one of these others, but they’d steal everything not bolted down. No offense to them, but it’s the truth.”

Kane smiled.

“Want me to go?”

“It would be doing me a huge favor.”

“I’m taking a girl out to dinner tonight, but I’ll head over after.”

Lipsky leaned back and regarded Kane from an arm’s distance.

“A girl?” he asked. Broad Lipsky, now expansive and smiling. “You dog you. Who is she? Lucy from Receiving? Not the girl with the man-toes from Accounts Payable, what the hell was her name?”

Kane shook his head.

“Nothing like that. A daughter of one of my Mom’s friends. College girl, or was. Folks think it will do me good to get out a bit. They worry.”

Lipsky pulled out his wallet, removed a couple twenties.

“Here,” he said.

“C’mon Lenny.”

“Take it! My treat. Is she pretty?”

“Don’t know.”

“It don’t matter,” Lipsky said. He tucked the wallet back into his pants and turned to walk away. Kane saw a kind of weariness pass like a reef of clouds across Lipsky’s droopy eyelids. “Spend every dime, you hear? Do me that favor. Spend it all.”

Kane planned to take the girl to Renoro’s for dinner. He knew he wouldn’t have a problem spending Lipsky’s money. He’d have the chicken piccatta for twenty five bucks. The girl, Janine, would have the salmon somethingorother. They’d eat, make small talk, Kane would have her home by eight and be off to Fitzy’s.

When he arrived at her apartment, a guy Kane assumed to be Janine’s roommate, Jeff, muscle-bound blonde-headed Jeff, shirtless Jeff, answered the door.

Jeff smiled, looked Kane up and down.

“Hey bro,” he said.

Kane nodded. He held a small clutch of purple and white flowers in a crackling roll of cellophane. The sickly petals bent over themselves in the humidity of the summer night. He’d picked them up at that Circle K as an afterthought, last time he’d bought flowers had been for junior prom.

“Come on in,” Jeff said. “I’ll get Janine.”

The door slid closed behind him and Kane stood in the foyer while Jeff retreated down the adjacent hallway, shutting the door to the room at the end. Kane rocked from heel to toe, stared at the collection of photos on the wall, a celebration of all things Jeff. Jeff as a child. Jeff graduating high school. Young Jeff, arms around his bros at the beach. College Jeff. Fraternity Jeff. Always with the bros. Current Jeff, in a suit at some event with his arms around the same group of bros, only now the others were older, fatter some of them, although not Jeff. The years touched only those around Jeff, but not Jeff. He was ageless. His eyes were unwrinkled in the corners. His hair blonde and ever-present, his whole face like a bug in petrified, golden amber. The world didn’t touch Jeff, not for a moment.

Kane heard murmuring from behind the closed door. Insistent voices. Something went thud. More murmuring. Jeff emerged, leaned back into the room to make a last point, then closed the door behind him and walked up to Kane, put his arm around his neck.

“Janine’s just finishing getting dressed,” he said. “Let’s go pregame a little. I just bought a killer bottle of small batch gin. We can break it open outside.”

They sat on the small porch overlooking the ocean as far as Kane could see, tumblers in hand.

“Good shit, right?” Jeff asked. “I got a bro who works for this micro-distiller in the Berkshires. This shit here was ranked the best gin in the world last year. You can’t buy it. They sold out the whole run in like three hours.”

“It’s good,” Kane said.

“Good? It’s fucking great bro! The fucking best! You can’t even buy this shit!”

They were on the eleventh floor. Kane was dazzled by the colors, the way the shock white of the beach undulated beneath waves of foaming blue that washed up and then returned to the ocean. Under the descending sun Kane thought it looked more like the sand that came and ebbed, like the water was the immovable object, the thing which stood still. A soft rush of water-pushed wind drifted up to the men. The beach’s whiteness was like that of a bone, Kane thought.

“Great view,” he said.

“Fucking A,” Jeff said. “This is a hard place to get an apartment. One of my bros knows a guy. Last tenant splattered himself down in the parking lot, jumped right off this deck. Splat. My bro called and I had my deposit in before they’d cleaned the guts off the pavement. That’s how fast you’ve got to move to get into this place.”

Kane finished his drink. Jeff leaned over the glass-topped wicker table between them and re-filled Kane’s empty tumbler.

“So what do you do for work?” Jeff asked.

“I’m at Emberton,” he said.

“Emberton! Excellent! I’m not in the heavy industries, mind you, I was a bond guy over at Lexcor, you’ve heard of it, I’m sure,” Jeff said. “But I know about Emberton. Great spread. Not much debt. Kickass PE. Good place. I own some of your stock. What are you over there? Operations? Supply chain guy?”

“I take the metal shells of oil filters and use a high-speed graphite wheel grinder to rub off imperfections. I punch a clock. I get paid by the piece.”

Jeff nodded, reached over to pour more gin into Kane’s half-full tumbler.

“That sounds—that sounds fucking horrible, bro,” he said.

Kane laughed.

“It’s not that bad,” Kane said. “It’s good work for someone who doesn’t want to bring the job home with them.”

“Amen to that,” Jeff said. “No one wants to bring their work home with them!”

Jeff finished his gin, poured another, topped off Kane’s half-full glass.

“I had a deal with this South Korean bank last year,” Jeff said. “Lost like, ten, fifteen million, how can you tell, right? That much money. I didn’t sleep for a month. Kept waiting for the cops to come to the door.”

Jeff turned in his seat to look back down the hallway, toward the closed bedroom door.

“Seemed like it ought to be a crime to lose that much dough,” he said. “But no one seemed to care. Well, Dick Vernett cared. He was my boss. But I’ve got some leads on a new gig. Bunch of places are looking out for a guy like me. You want to sell bonds around here, I’m you’re guy.”

Waves washed below, in and out from a horizon that grew deep purple from azure, now closer than before, the lowering sun deflecting off the vastness and forcing them to squint over the small batch liquor.

“This is really good stuff,” Kane said. “Can’t feel my nose. I had a buddy from Virginia once who used to bring stuff like this from home. Reminds me of him.”

Jeff brightened.

“Yeah? Can he still get it?”

“Not really.”

“You guys no longer bros?”

“He’s dead. Earl Stark. Killed by an IED near Ramadi a few years back.”

“Janine said you’d been in the war, or that her Mom had told her you’d been over there.”

Kane’s tongue felt booze-thick, and the question was out before he could think to stop it.

“So what’s up with you and Janine?” Kane asked. “You guys together? This whole thing was sort of arranged by our mothers, I don’t mean to butt into anything.”

Jeff shook his head and smiled, his answer interrupted by a whooshing of fabric behind them. Janine stood in the open doorway. Kane put the tumbler down, the fog cleared and below him the ocean flattened into a toneless plate that neither ebbed nor flowed, just lay froth-edged and motionless, the potential energy of the great sea held in check by the moon, by gravity, maybe something else.

Instead of Renoro’s, they went to dinner in a local seaside seafood shack with cork walls and a table candle whose flame guttered atop an old rum bottle in gentle, fragrant breezes. Kane thought he could smell Janine’s perfume everywhere, the hint of jasmine and rose petals unmistakable across the space between them.

Kane was lost in the one imperfection of her face, a thin, almost elegant scar that traced her hairline. It only made her more beautiful, he thought, along with eyes that seemed too perfect, too geometrically aligned to be real. When she walked, she was a ballerina, when she sat, a porcelain cat. He spent the meal resisting the urge to reach out and caress the back of her hands, or touch her cheek.

She blushed when he ordered a sangria bowl for them to share, refused to let their eyes meet for very long, as if he had to earn intimate moments, like she were too far away to hear his shouts and that her ramparts weren’t easily scaled, not by the ladders Kane carried. They talked about work and home and their mothers, the menu, even the weather, just another elderly married couple searching calmly for something to talk about on their sixtieth wedding anniversary, knowing they didn’t need to say a word. It was so easy, Kane thought, I never stood a chance.

“My Mom says you were in the war,” Janine asked. “Which one?”

“Iraq. Two tours as a Navy corpsman.”

“I thought she said you were in the Marines,” she said.

“I was with them. The Marines don’t have a medical branch. They use Navy hospital corpsmen. I was assigned to a rifle platoon. Thirty guys. I dispensed Band-Aids and antibiotics and Motrin, that kind of thing.”

“It must have been more than that.”

“At times.”

“Was it hard?”

“Was what hard?”

“Watching them get hurt. Your friends.”

“You can get used to almost anything.”

“You got used to it?”

He wanted to tell her about it, like he used to tell Fitzy. Kane wanted to say that he learned to dread each day, that being over there had been a constant assault on his sanity. He wanted to tell her about Harnish and the lieutenant, how they never found any part of him at all, no matter how hard they looked. He couldn’t find the words. He thought he probably never would. These were burrs he would carry his whole life, and there was no way to grind that down.

“Never,” he said. “You never get used to it.”

She reached and touched his left hand then withdrew. They ate in silence and drank their sangria and at the end of the night Kane brought Janine back to her apartment building and they walked hand-in-hand on the beach by ocean waters as deep and smooth as an endless, moonlit mirror. Later, they stood in front of the building’s main entrance, where Kane tried to kiss her and Janine relented, at first, before pushing away.

“I can’t,” she said, then stepped back.

“Jeff?” Kane asked.

She nodded.

“We’ve been together for a few years,” she said. “He’s had a rough go of things. I don’t want to hurt him. He doesn’t have any family, no friends. My mother hates him. He was good to me when I was having a rough patch. Fair’s fair. I went out with you tonight as a favor to my mother. I thought it might get her off my back. I wasn’t expecting anything more.”

Kane reached out to touch the back of Janine’s right hand. She didn’t pull away.

“I’d like to see you again,” he said.

“Maybe. No. Maybe.”

“Good enough for me.”

Janine held her shoes and jogged the few steps into the lobby of the building, and Kane wondered if it were a good or bad sign that she never looked back.

On his way home, Kane stopped by the YMCA. The lobby was empty, a television droning on in the corner of an empty room ringed by torn and stained couches. A fat security guard with a five o’clock shadow on his face and a mustard stain in the middle of his black uniform tie snored, the sports pages opened on his belly and his feet up on the lobby’s main desk. Kane rang the bell with a slap.

“I’m here from Emberton,” Kane said. The clerk startled, awake now, rolled his eyes in Kane’s direction then ambled to a rack of keys. He inspected a handful before plucking one set and tossing them onto the counter in front of Kane.

“We been expecting you,” the clerk said. “Supposed to be here hours ago.”

When he stepped into the vestibule of Fitzy’s apartment and turned on the lights, Kane thought at first that he’d gone to the wrong place. No pictures adorned the walls. In the living room there was a couch, a folding metal chair, and a small black-and-white television mounted on a milk crate. No books. No spoon collections, no posters or stereo systems or piles of bills or dirty laundry. No sense that anyone lived here at all.

The kitchen was a little better. At least there were a couple mugs with mud-thick coffee slicks ringing the bottom. A plate with a patina of grease and a patch of yellow crumbs rested nearby in the sink. Kane opened the refrigerator and found a jar of pickles, a bottle of vodka and a metal cash box, which Kane picked up and brought to the couch.

The bedroom was devoid of personal touches, except for a few threadbare shirts and an old suit hanging in the closet, rolls of underwear and a few loose socks in the top drawer of an otherwise empty three-drawer chest.

Kane wasn’t shocked by Fitzy’s meager life, even understood it, to a point, this truth that they both lived by, that Fitzy once outlined as they drank cheap hooch during lunch on the bluff overlooking the half-drowned tire.

“You can’t tell these guys about the worst part of it,” Fitzy had said. “They think in terms of blood and guts. I don’t see my buddies that way. Lumpkin got it on some random numbered fucking hill forty year ago. Fucking Lumpkin.”

As Fitzy spoke that day, Kane had felt himself sinking into the earth, his jangled nerves listing to starboard or port, a deviation from the vertical in any case, there being no artificial horizon to guide him. Fitzy was the center, the war was his center, everything else remained off-kilter, wrong, piecemeal, dragged by gravity toward to the dirty river below, or men to their spinning grinder wheels, where they burnished away imperfections in the metal, left the ones on themselves unattended.

“I still see him only as the young kid who dragged me out of that bar in Phenix City when I got half my ear ripped off,” Fitzy had said. “Lumpkin’s dead, but he ain’t, and I can’t say goodbye. Not even after all this time. Try telling that to Jones. He just wants to know if I stabbed a VC to death, wants to know what it feels like to kill a man the same way he wants to know what it feels like to die in a burning race car, or from a parachute that don’t open, or when some kid in Taiwan falls into the polar bear pit at the zoo. He wants to know, but he don’t want to know. Fucking ghoul, that guy.”

They were afflicted by the same shorted circuit, a murder of wayward electrons seeking their ground, Kane knew, made manifest by this inability to put things back together or to stop them from disintegrating in the first place. Without looking, Kane predicted even the socks Fitzy owned wouldn’t match.

 The cash box was unlocked. Inside, Kane found stacks of one hundred dollar bills—flat, brand-new and smelling of the bespoke fibrous paper that US currency was printed on, and ink and stale metal. He closed the lid and stared at the wall.

After a while, Kane counted. Five hundred bills. Five hundred brand new, one hundred dollar bills. Fifty thousand dollars. He tried to imagine how Fitzy had extracted so much cash from what he earned at Emberton, failed, counted again, then held each bill up to the room’s sole light bulb, hoping to divine counterfeits. Kane stopped after a few, admitted to himself that he wouldn’t know a fake if he saw it.

Kane pulled out one of the bills and put it in his pocket, then tucked the cash box under his arm and left the apartment. In the market further down the block Kane approached the clerk, a young man in thick black glasses and an electric green golf shirt. The store smelled of olives and curry, and the clerk’s name tag identified him as “Jugdish.”

“Can you detect a counterfeit bill?” Kane asked.

Jugdish looked at Kane through sideways eyes.

“Why would you ask such a thing?” Jugdish asked, his accent heavy and full of suspicion.

“It’s for a friend. He thinks he may have been ripped off. What do you think?”

“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

“Which is it?”

“It is whichever answer follows your question, if your question is preceded by a purchase.”

Kane slapped a candy bar on the counter, followed by a dollar bill.

“Mint Extreme Patties are a dollar twenty nine, after tax,” Jugdish said.

Kane counted out three dimes and tossed them onto the counter. Jugdish held his hand out. Kane dropped a hundred dollar bill onto it. Jugdish pulled out a small yellow pen and ran it over the bill in several places.

“It is the real deal,” he said.

“Not fake?” Kane asked.

“Not fake.”

Kane kept the box on the empty passenger seat in his car, the one Janine had sat in earlier, and drove around the quieted city, debating what to do. Bodegas and Vietnamese noodle joints and tattoo parlors drifted by in neon-cloaked silence. A light rain turned the main drag from a light gray strip to a dark and mirror-black avenue. Kane kept his window down, smelled the dirt and listened as the bald tires on his dented and rusting Corolla squeaked and squished their way across the scabrous asphalt.

He ended up in front of Janine’s building. He looked up and saw the light in the apartment she shared with Jeff cast through the sliding glass door eleven stories above, a single yellow square in a sea of darkened parallelograms. He thought of how Janine had described Jeff as broken somehow, but couldn’t muster a laugh at the irony that Jeff, broken Jeff, Jeff the loser, Jeff the vanquished, that that Jeff was the one sharing her bed tonight.

When the sun rose Kane was sitting in his Corolla in the parking lot of Emberton, watching his coworkers stagger in in groups of two or three. Kane waited until he saw what he was looking for, giant Lipsky crab-crawling across the lot, wet patches already forming in the armpits of yet another white, shortsleeve button-down shirt.

Kane met him halfway to the front gate, intercepted Lipsky in the middle of the large parking lot, wide and flat like the vast asphalt “grinder” where he had paraded with the Marines—his Marines—on Camp LeJeune, before the bombs and mountains and a hundred years came and went. Without preamble, Kane held the box up, holding it out to Lipsky in both hands the way a communicant at the rail receives the Host.

“What’s this?” Lipsky asked.

Kane shrugged.

“It’s for you,” he said. “I found it in Fitzy’s place. I don’t have any use for it. I thought you might.”

Lipsky opened the box, eyes widened. He slapped the lid closed and pushed the box at Kane.

“Take this back,” he said.

Kane shook his head.

“It ought to do something good for someone.”

“I can’t take this,” Lipsky said. “How much is in here?”

“Enough.”

Kane placed the box at Lipsky’s feet and patted the giant man on his shoulder. As he walked away, Kane knew he wouldn’t go back to the grinding wheel, not that day, maybe not ever. Lipsky loomed over the box as if waiting for it to do something, snuck a quick look at the sky, then bent over, snatched it up, and went into the building. Somewhere inside, Jonesie wondered about other lives, and bent over the spinning wheel until the cylinder was true. He wasn’t fast, but he wasn’t slow. The job, after all, paid by the piece.



Copyright © 2013 Ted Flanagan

 

Ted Flanagan is a former journalist who now lives and writes in Massachusetts. Ted is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University, and his short fiction has appeared in the journals 'Independent Ink' and 'hoi polloi.