BY MARY BREADEN
A word for fish.
The sun was shining: the Company was as fortunate today as it had been this year.
A rainstorm was likely most months of the year, especially in April, but no one believed the rain would come.
The Company had allowed for a week of paid grieving before Rick had returned. The manager had told him to take as long as he needed. As long as Rick needed ended up being longer than a week.
By the time he returned to Baxter-Billingston, the Company had contracted out the work to a marine carpenter who made a real mess of the shop, what are the odds. The scaffolding was shoddy.
The saws, the chisels, the planes were put away wrong.
The bolts weren’t sorted and this was a task all the shop hands knew to perform during down-time. Along with the sweeping.
The first Friday of April and in Rick’s mouth, saliva was foaming, as if he had caught the scent of raw meat.
With the right combination of hunger, negligence, and cruelty, any animal would bite.
SAFETY IS NOT THE ABSENCE OF ACCIDENTS.
The planks and beams remembered. The saw and its sharp-toothed blade had warned of red. Metal promises, red-staining, swirling; everything was a weapon. Even a pencil, or the evening news.
Nothing about this place had ever struck him as strange.
For the first few years of Donny’s life, the family had lived outside the city in lowlands just beyond the river’s floodplain, though even their acres sometimes flooded in winter. When it came time for their son to go to school, they moved into a school district that was north of the city. Rick’s daily commute was only a hop over the river and down into the industrial stretch of land. Morning: the bridge lifted him up into the sky with gulls and the sun rose over Mt. Hood. Night: the bridge lifted him into cloud and through a netting of lights and the sun set in the slump of hills where the Willamette kissed the Columbia. His wife, Colleen, taught their son to say, no, thank you, when she walked Donny to school past Unthank Park; she instructed Donny, be kind to those in distress, they’re just agitated, you just be kind and keep moving.
When Donny came into trouble for the first time, Rick moved the family back to the countryside to a house down a long gravel road that went black once the sun set. The Johns family was like any other family when they said grace together over dinner. And Donny was a speeding bullet, all muscle, and all propelling his body away, away.
There was nothing more to be done.
SAFETY IS THE PRESENCE OF SAFEGUARDS.
God had either dried up, or overwatering had rotted it to the root.
He saw his boy, but in the face of a child. Again, behind the beard of a man, a little girl who was waving a flag. They all carried flags.
Donny had eyes that looked green in sunlight and brown in the dark and whose pupils were dilated every time Rick saw him in the later years: Graduation at Danville High School (1988); Danville Sisters of Mercy Hospital waiting area while Donny was waiting to go back to visit his newborn son (1989); Yamhill County Jail front desk where Rick posted bail for his boy and gave him a ride back to Donny’s place in Vancouver (1990); finally, lids shut, coffin shut, hole in the ground filled. Donny had turned 22 that winter just before ACCIDENTAL. Trouble had trickled into the countryside, it had swallowed up the city, and Donny was swimming in it.
The base of death was American-made.
Someone outside was giving a speech.
The president of Baxter-Billingston was an old man with white hair now, and he had been for the 25 years (SAFEGUARDS) that Rick had worked there. Mr. Baxter had been forced to form a merger with Billingston in order to keep their mile-long warehouse open; everyone knew that the Billingston side of things would have production moved to Mexico or China before Mr. Baxter had gone cold in the ground. Nearly a thousand employees here on Front Avenue, but actually only three in Rick’s shop. These things aren’t rocket science.
Rick could retire now if he wanted to and live off his pension, but it was smarter to wait until he was 60. The labor was draining, blood on metal sometimes, but he could make it until 60, possibly.
1 + 1 + ⅜ of an inch – X margin of error. By then he would have been working for Baxter for almost 40 years because he’d started when he was 20, which was two years younger than his boy was when Donny’s friends killed him.
What are the odds and how do you figure?
The crowd cheered. Beside the grill, Rick waited for the cook to put on some fresh burgers. He needed decent meat: if he was going to risk whatever cancers and clogging contents, it better be for something hot.
The president of Billingston got up to speak. He was a younger man — though every man was younger than Mr. Baxter. Billingston’s president was a man who received too many gifts. Their Emperor turned his head to look at the crowd with watery blue eyes.
Maybe it was the wind moving his eyes to water.
Rick tossed the meat in the garbage and took a quick swig of beer. He felt the cook’s eyes on him.
“Fuck this guy.”
Rick turned to see who had spoken. The man was familiar, but new to Baxter-Billingston. He was standing closely beside another man. Welding foreman, probably. The majority of the work Baxter-Billingston did was in welding the barges and railroads cars, over in the big building the Emperor had tattooed with his favorite groaner.
The man nodded towards the president of Billingston.
“Johns, we heard about your boy,” one man said.
“It’s not right what they did to him.”
“Way they did it.”
Rick thought he saw Colleen through a parting in the crowd. He tried to take a step toward her, but the crowd was too thick. He waited for an opening.
“We just want you to know that we’ve got a plan to make sure nothing like this ever happens to another boy like yours.”
“Thank you,” Rick said.
“We’ve got a support group type of thing for folks that have been victimized by unfortunate acts of hate violence like this one. We’d like you to know.”
They handed him a business card and before they walked away, the two foremen patted him on the shoulder, gently.
The crowd had swallowed them up.
In the belly of the whale Jonah waited for salvation.
A group of bagpipers had started playing, which indicated that the launch was about to begin. Usually, Rick liked to be up at the front of the dock with some work pals and observe how well his scaffolding held up as the ship rolled down their skids and into the river.
Gently, the beast opened its mouth to speak, but the bloodied man had been inside all along and, instead of words, a body rushed out in a river of oily matter.
River on the evening news.
Kids plugged their ears to cover the hideous sound. Bagpipers. Where were the guys from the shop, or had no one invited them? The Emperor clapped his hands. Where was Colleen? Their Emperor clapped his hands and all the 500 clapped back. A small brown eagle clutching a snake was in a corner of the card the foreman had handed Rick. American flag on thick white paper, flags on the t-shirts of the workers, state and national flags behind the podium where management stood, and little children carried flags of their own.
Into the belly of the whale, a faithful man could easily pass the time.
White layered onto concrete sky like you might have put down epoxy.
You had to give glory to the whale for swallowing you whole, unless there had been no other alternative.
Boys either die young or grow into old men.
They were his friends, sort of, but what are the odds?
They had been owed money by Donny, but, as Donny’s ex-girlfriend told Rick and Colleen, there hadn’t been any ill-will. Only wanted to give him a scare.
But the Donny had struggled too hard or got hit too hard by the steel or had fallen too violently. The boy was all muscle and wasn’t it true that muscle outweighs fat? Simple. They were boys, younger than Donny, but nonetheless old enough to be charged as men.
The physics, it was simple. Basement steps, spine, skull: crack.
A fall like that could flood your evening news.
Are you coming home tonight?
Rick ate his way around the lines like the fat of Sunday dinner roasts. Scrape it to the side and later into the trash, but the gray, tough meat kept appearing in a clean, all-white plate.
He would have changed the subject.
He would speak.
He would tell them his son was no martyr for their goddamn cause.
His boy had eyes that looked green in the sunlight and brown in the dark and Rick had prayed so many hours into boats’ cradles just over there in his woodshop and still the fucker had managed to break, be broken.
If another man would just listen, he would say it.
Twice now, Mr. Baxter had clobbered the side of the barge the Company had named ATSADI. In his speech, he had said the barge would run the river like young salmon ran for the Pacific — but the bottle of champagne was not going gently. Their Emperor looked around and the man who received too many gifts stepped up beside him with a fish-bone grin. The bottle exploded and Rick thought he saw the gifted man’s tongue darting out to catch the liquid. The air buzzed as the barge’s clutching beams and braces lowered ATSADI into its bath. Kids screamed.
Rick looked around for Colleen. They had never made the guest list when Donny was young enough to hold in their arms. Not on the guest list when their son still buried his face in his father’s neck, the safest place. When they came for the first time, they brought Donny who was ten and in the Boy Scout troop that paraded about before the goddamn bagpipers started. Rick remembered his son was frustrated about something, or embarrassed, maybe it was because he hadn’t known the steps, or had forgotten his Scout cap, which all the other boys remembered. Colleen had tried to reassure him that no one cared, it was a celebration, not a punishment to be in the parade! I want to jump of this dock, goddamn you, their son had said to them.
Crack. The barge fell into the water. Two tugs tugged over and began the process of attaching themselves. Beams and wooden scaffolding littered the water.
Someone would need to come by and clean that up.
Donny had let the front door close without responding to his father that last time. The car’s engine revved, the gravel shot back, and the boy was gone.
Are you coming home tonight?
Rick wondered why he had asked Donny that. The boy didn’t even live there anymore, hadn’t lived there for years.
Crickets wandered their long, black road.
The band started playing a song, or its prelude.
It was a pop song but the melody seemed so funereal.
These days, what can one do, you just keep on keeping on, and eventually someone or something stronger will settle the score on your behalf and you won’t have to say anything.
This song was famous for its ending (you’ve heard it before, you know you have, it’s the one you can hum along with). Now it began.
Salmon were running.