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Authors: Bruce Machart

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BOOK: Men in the Making
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Matty rounded the corner, fork still in hand, and when he looked down at his dog and then up at me, he seemed older somehow, already a man, shrunken and beaten down by years of misfortune. "Daddy," he said, and I took his hand and pulled him past Anne and onto the back porch. "She's still breathing," I told him, pulling the dog from the doorway. "Let's get her in the truck. We'll take her over to Dr. Mason's."

Anne stood crying on the porch, watching us load the dog into the cab. Whether determined to accompany her sister or terrified by the prospect of staying behind, or both, the other dog, Bo, leapt into the bed of the truck, and when we climbed in and slammed the doors, Luke opened her eyes. "She's okay," Matty said, and I nodded, forcing a smile, but the dog's eyes were deep pools of black, dilated so that only the faintest rim of white was left visible. Before we made it out to the highway, the dog jerked, her muscles seizing up so that her legs shot forward, her nails scratching across the dash of the truck, and what I remember most is not the sound of the dog's jaw snapping shut, or the way the last rush of breath pushed from the poor thing's flared nostrils, or the way Bo was whining in the back, her nose pressed hard into the glass of the cab. Not even the way Matty leaned forward, covering the dog's body with his own. No, what I remember most is the sight of Anne out there on the porch before we drove away, the way she just stood there, her legs and arms pale from all her time indoors, her lips moving in whispered thoughts I'd never be able to hear. She was my wife, and I'd cursed her as I put the truck in gear, and then she'd turned back toward the house. She wiped her feet on the mat before she went in, and I knew she was leaving.

 

When we got to the mill, Red and I ran the hoses and cranked up the power washer, and out there in the night, with the clouds and the cold and the silence working a number on us, we stood at the infeed side of the debarker drum, spraying the insides clean with a hot mix of ammonia and water. The smell, Red had told me at the funeral home, had gotten worse each day, so he'd called an old buddy of his, Henderson, the line foreman at our sister plant in Silsbee, Texas, for advice.

"They had possums," Red said, "a whole family of them nesting nights. Henderson said they fired up one morning and debarked at least a half dozen of the little bastards. Said the only thing that made a dent in the stench was a good hose-down and a couple drum-loads of cedar."

So we worked. We sprayed and vapor rose from the water to join the clouds and soon enough the drum was steaming like a kiln, but the smell was still there, rank and sour, swirling out of that drum into the air. I couldn't shake it, it hung in my nostrils, but not once did I think,
That's a man. That's a man I'm smelling.

At the time, all I could think about was Matty's dog, Luke, who I'd buried that day, in anger and disbelief, beneath the plot of ground where Anne had always made her garden. I'd bent my back and shoveled for an hour, digging down deep while Matty sat on the porch, holding Bo's head in his hands to keep her quiet, and by the time I'd finished Anne had packed the car with her clothes and some groceries for the trip. She was going back to Texas, she said. To her mother's. I slid the dog into the hole, and the solid sound it made hitting bottom kicked the air from my lungs. I turned to Matty on the porch, a boy holding fast to his dog, a boy too frightened to cry, and when my breath came back to me I boiled over. I told Anne to go on, then, if that's what she wanted, if she wanted to leave her family behind, if she thought she could just hop in the car and drive away from her life. "Just go the hell on," I said, and then I packed the earth back over that dog.

Now Red was feeling better. Sobering up some, he said. He could drive. And though I shouldn't have allowed it, I knew that, for Red, this job would never be done if he couldn't see it through. He'd flipped the switch, and as crazy and insensitive and downright impossible as it sounds, Red was a company man, and by the unspoken rules of the mill, this was his wrong to right. So while he was on the cherry picker, rolling out past the fence to the raw materials yard for the cedar, I fired up the infeed conveyor. The belt was riding high on one side of its idlers, so I worked a wrench on the take-ups to train it back straight, and when Red drove up with the first of the logs, I stepped down to the debarker's control panel and fired the thing up. Once released, the logs crashed down, bouncing on the impact idlers before the belt shot them forward into the drum, and then I engaged the drive shaft. Red was just sitting there on the cherry picker smoking a cigarette, and I was eleven years back and five miles away, in my backyard with Matty, who was balanced on one of his braces, pointing to where his dog was digging. It was Bo, hunkered in a hole of her own making, tunneling down to where two weeks before I'd buried Luke. "She remembers," Matty said, and his braces rattled while he sobbed. "She wants Luke back."

And what do you say to that?
Yes, she does, son. She surely does.
Something as simple and stupid and inadequate as that, and then you just stand there, holding on to your boy while he cries, watching while the dog slings soil, digging deeper. You're not thinking about decay, about the smell of rot. You're thinking about the son you have left and the son who died because of a dirt bike you bought him and the wife who told you so, who told you so when she turned to go. That dog, the one underground, it's the last thing on your mind, until it hits you, a stench so bad your boy rears back on his braces, a smell so dead you grab the digging dog and wrench her by the collar out of that hole, because this isn't right, not with the boy here, it isn't, because he's had enough lessons like this for a lifetime, you think, and that's when you send him inside. That's when you head for the barn, grab the bags of Ready-Crete you keep for setting new fence posts, and dam that hole up for good. And then it's done.

"That ought to do it," Red shouted. "I think that'll do it, Tom."

I shut the debarker down and the logs rolled loud like summer thunder to a stop inside. Red stepped down from the cherry picker and stood beside me at the controls. And then I kicked on the pneumatics and opened the discharge vents. I'm forty-seven years old, I've been in lumber mills half my life, but when those vents sprang clear and that bark dust flew, I nearly went teary with relief. It came in gusts, wafting toward us, wave after wave of cedar so sharp and clean and loud that it left your sinuses ringing.

"Jesus God," Red said. "Oh
Lord,
that's better."

I killed the pneumatics and we stood there together, taking it in, our breath steaming. "I think that did it," Red said. "I think it's all right now." He was breathing hard, his cheeks flushed with the gin or the cold or both.

You were drunk at a man's wake,
I thought.
Whatever guilt you've got worming around in you, this won't get rid of it.

He looked at me, his a tired smile. The man was still wearing his tie. He pulled my lighter from his pocket, lit a cigarette, and handed the thing back to me. I turned it in my hand, gave the flint wheel a turn, and the flame came to life. I flipped it shut and looked up to find Red smiling, his face lit up with relief, and I knew then that I'd go home and have one last drink on the porch, that I'd sit and sip my whiskey out there, and then I'd take my sad, shivering ass back into the house and call my son. I'd call my son and when he answered I'd tell him I was mailing him a package, the old lighter I'd refused him before—that and some pocket change—and when he asked me what I wanted, I'd tell him.
Nothing,
I'd say.
Nothing, son. I don't want anything at all.
There would be something like silence, a static hiss, our breath crackling inside hundreds of miles of frozen telephone lines. He wouldn't say thank you. I didn't expect he'd say anything at all, but then I'd change my mind.
There is something,
I'd say.
How you doing out there anyway. How's school, I mean. Tell me about you, son. I want to hear about you.

"Yes, sir," Red said, still breathing deep through his nose, "that's a whole shitpot better."

In every way a man can know something—from experience, from his gut, from the sound of the wind, from the smell of pine trees and from the voice he sometimes hears in his head when he prays—in all those ways I knew Red was wrong, that it would take more than one night of work out in the cold to bring him relief. And still I wanted to believe. I wanted it to be true, for it to be over. For both of us.

"Let's do this right," I said, nodding toward the cherry picker, then out beyond the fence to where the cedar was stacked. "One more load, just to be sure. Then I've got to get home."

Because He Can't Not Remember

F
IVE MINUTES MORE
and the Ramirez twins will be rifling through her purse while they weave through traffic on Highway 225, Raul's foot heavy on the gas as they put time and miles between themselves and the gringa they've left bloodied and unconscious, laid out on her back in the Walmart parking lot.

Five minutes more and this is the way Tim Tilden will lose his wife, but now, as he steers his Chevy S-10 off the 225 feeder road and into the Walmart parking lot, the only thing he fears losing is his ever-loving mind. Diapers, by damn. Midnight and they need diapers. Beside him in his car seat, little Timmy is sleeping through all his mother's banter—and man, oh man, can this woman cause grief with her mouth. Put her on a northbound bus, she'd talk the ears off a couple counties of Iowa cornfields, guaranteed. Tonight, Tim's thinking, she's nothing but piss vinaigrette and a will that every thought to cross her mind be heard at higher decibels. Insisted, for chrissake, that she come along, haul the baby out after midnight. And why? More time to talk. Yak the entire way, bellyaching about sore nipples and soaked bras. Tit-talk, Tim calls it—and not the kind a man can appreciate, either.

About all they can figure, Tim and Natalie, is that the kid can't stand the taste of skin, the sting of salt. Gets spooked like a puppy at a pistol range, maybe by the faintest sounds of human plumbing, blood on the move beneath flesh—who knows?—but he's two weeks old today and still he won't nurse. Turns his head from Natalie's breast like maybe it's bared teeth at him and gone to growling. Back home in Deer Park, some three miles away in a rent-house neighborhood near the ship channel, the top shelf of their refrigerator is stacked two rows deep with boiled Ball jars full of extra pumped breast milk. The sound these last few nights—the electric pump whirring, applying relief to his wife—reminds Tim of the throttly purr of their tabby, a sneaky beast that, given the chance, would find a fast home for every ounce of that stuff. The cat, Tim thinks. The cat would fucking nurse.

And now, after two weeks' worth of worry, here he is, cooped up in his truck with his wife, and she's got her mouth kicked into overdrive. It's like that with Natalie, hop in the cab and prepare for the gab. Two years back, when they'd only just caught fire as a couple, after that first weekend of shit-kicking at the Gypsum Road Saloon, after the long, sheet-tangling nights at Tim's apartment, Tim had taken a liking to her constant chitchat, to the leathery feel of the steering wheel and the smell of that jasmine perfume she kept heavy on her neck. She'd roll down the window and pull her skirt up on her thighs, and then she'd let it roll, miles of the most meaningless stuff a man could ever hope to hear: the gossip from the car dealership where she still did the filing and answered phones—who was getting slippery with who down in the service department's grease pit, getting serviced something fierce, she'd say, amidst used oil filters and the slick smell of 10W-40. Shit like that. Hell, get a few longnecks in her and she'd even talk to the traffic, to the stoplights. "Turn me loose," she once screamed, hanging out the window and giving the long red light on Canal an exaggerated, nail-polished finger. They were on the way home from the Gypsum, where Natalie had pronounced the end of their dance night by cupping him under the table and downing the rest of his beer. "You don't give me the green here, I'm gonna come unglued with horny."

Yeah, sure, Tim had liked it, had liked the way she rode close to him, straddling the gear shift, her hips next to his on the bench seat, had liked the throaty moan she'd made when he shifted down into fourth on the entrance ramp. Lately, though, between the kid raising Cain and the calls from Natalie's mother telling them to hold out, that the kid would nurse when he got good and hungry and angry enough to suck hard—between all that mess and Natalie's mile-a-minute mouth, he's had about e-goddamn-nough. At least, he thinks, riding the clutch before the turn, right now she's talking some truth, some honest motherly words, words about fear, and though he's grown tired of her chatter, at least for now she's making sense.

"I swear he's scared of it," Natalie says. "Such a big old thing stuck right in his little face."

Turning into the crowded parking lot, Tim cracks the window to let her words out. Another Houston night so hot and humid you could hang teabags from tree branches to steep. A night gone ripe with the sulfur-sweet stink of the Exxon and Shell and Phillips plants lining the highway. From here at the Walmart, it all looks too organized. The way the little warning lights flash in sync atop the condensate tanks, the way the smokestacks fill the sky with what looks like a regulated stream of gray-green smoke.

"He ain't scared," Tim says, steering toward the center lane of parking spaces. "Not a man on the planet would be scared of pontoons like yours, never mind his age."

"Well, he sure enough
acts
scared. And he ain't scared of the bottle, Tim. He's not one bit scared of that."

Tim knows it's true: put the stuff in a bottle and the little guy will latch on like a Louisiana leech, but that's not what troubles him most.

No, what really worries him is this homo gene he's read about.

At work, delivering mail on his route, Tim has all the free reading he likes. On his morning trip to the post office can, on his coffee breaks at ten and two, even on his lunch break, he's taken to reading the newspapers and magazines he's yet to deliver. For the first year or so, he'd take his pocketknife to the plastic wrap of someone's
Playboy
or
Penthouse,
spend his break time comparing Natalie to the airbrushed angels of the world, but lately he's gotten down to educating himself in things other than glossy pink skin. That's how he sees it, this reading—an education. The only one he'll ever get this side of his degree from Channelview High. Lately, though, it's this education that's got him to fretting, and he's sick with the thought that maybe his kid's not right in the wrist, that maybe there's a scientific reason the little guy won't nurse. He's read it somewhere, how when you're a queer, you're born that way, and though it all seems as impossibly strange as the crowd of midnight traffic in this parking lot, he can't put a stop to the thoughts. Little Timmy in leather pants with both ears pierced, introducing Mom and Dad to his new
friend.
Sick shit, Tim thinks.

BOOK: Men in the Making
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