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Best of Irish Poetry 2009
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WILLIAM HART

 

 

 

 

William Hart

William Hart’s stories and poems have appeared in several hundred literary journals, newspapers and anthologies. He’s authored nine poetry collections and two novels, Never Fade Away and Operation Supergoose. He also makes documentaries with his filmmaker wife, Jayasri Majumdar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burden of Tomorrow

 

 

 

Harlan raised his welding hood and watched big snowflakes fly sideways on the wind as the storm moved in. Already the windshields in the parking lot were going white. Lucky for him he had work in the shop. He was welding air ducts for the Emporia job and there was a lot of it, enough to keep him indoors all week. Next week he’d be on the field crew going to Emporia so he’d be working outdoors then, but he doubted it would be snowing. Maybe the sun would be out. In his fifty-eight Kansas winters he’d seen a lot of bright, mild February days.   

            The boss and the new man came out of the office and walked his way. Mr. Lewin looked worried. “Harlan, I need you to give Mark a hand up in Newton.”

            He nodded.

            “Hate to send you out on a day like this.” 

            Harlan knew that. The regret he saw in the boss’s face made him want to lighten the mood. “Heck, I was beginning to feel cooped up in here.”

            The boss laughed and so did Mark. Harlan liked that. He liked making people laugh when he was trying to. What he didn’t like was them laughing behind his back. That he hated. So what if he was a little slow? Nobody’s perfect. 

            The boss was telling Mark about the job so Harlan listened. Sounded like the loading spout had worn through at the co-op elevator. Usually that would happen in an elbow and, if Harlan remembered right, that spout had two els. One they could get to with a scaffold, but the other was off the roof with nothing under it but a hundred feet of air and railroad tracks. He hoped to God it wasn’t that one. He shivered and put it out of mind. Worrying wouldn’t help. 

            Half an hour later Harlan and his lead man were rolling north in a company pickup on Highway 81 between fields filling with snow. Flakes rushed the windshield as wind rocked the truck. The heater was toasting Harlan’s shins just right.     

            “How long you been with Roger?” Mark asked.

            “Sixteen years,” Harlan said with pride.

            “What’s he like?”

            “Good fella.” 

            “I mean, what’s he like as a man?”

            The question seemed strange to Harlan. He gave the only answer he could think of—and one he believed. “Good man to work for.”

            “Sure. But I figure he’s somebody you wouldn’t want to get pissed off.”

            What the heck was with this guy? “Do your job and you’ll be fine.”   

            When they reached the grain elevator, instead of turning onto the grounds Mark swung into the parking lot of the cafe across the street. Harlan was glad, even though it wasn’t yet break time. Their fifteen minutes of freedom wouldn’t be much fun inside an unheated concrete skyscraper.

            Getting out of the pickup Harlan found his knees had stiffened. He followed Mark through the parking lot, working the kinks out of his joints as the wind whipped the legs of his coveralls. A gust followed them into the cafe and was cut off by the aluminum storm door slamming shut behind them. They moved through warm air and the smell of frying bacon past chewing faces to an empty booth next to a picture window.

            Harlan placed his order then visited the men’s room. Seemed like he couldn’t go three hours without a whiz. When he got back to the booth he found his warmed-up cinnamon roll waiting with a pat of butter on top. Mark, across from him, was working on a thick slice of chocolate pie. Two cups of coffee in tan ceramic mugs steamed on the table. With his fork Harlan cut into the cinnamon roll. Melted butter pooled on the plate. He dabbed the cut-off piece of roll. 

            While he chewed, Harlan sat back in the booth and looked up at the elevator. Snow was sweeping over the gallery, swirling down the whitewashed silos. Through the blizzard he thought he could see the loading spout. He cut off another piece of sweet roll. 

            When their break stretched to twenty minutes Harlan didn’t much mind. At twenty-five minutes, though, he felt antsy. He’d had two cups of coffee, his partner three, and the waitress was now ignoring them. Mark was telling another story—this one about the time he’d been under his Impala draining the oil pan when the jack tipped over. He claimed he’d been able to hold the car off his chest with his arms, yelling till his brother came out of the house and reset the jack. Could it be true? Harlan did believe a person could find super strength at times. In a way, it had happened to him. Yet for some reason he didn’t believe Mark.

            Harlan was ready to settle up and walk over to the elevator by himself, his lead man be damned. They weren’t getting paid to warm their butts in a café. At last Mark stood and tossed a quarter next to his plate. 

            The elevator manager took them on the lift up to the gallery floor. He led them out onto the bin tops where the wind was blowing like anything. Flying snow stung Harlan’s nose and cheek as the manager pointed to an elbow forty feet above them. The el was in the middle of a long pipe sloping downward across the headhouse wall. It increased the pipe’s earthward plunge by about thirty degrees. Harlan couldn’t make out much of what the guy was saying to Mark because of the wind but that didn’t matter. The elbow they were all looking at was the one they could get to with a scaffold, thank God.   

            The scaffold parts were stored in a tunnel that ran underneath the elevator and it took a lot of carrying to get them up to the roof. The work wasn’t heavy but Harlan found himself trotting to keep up with Mark, who moved mighty quick for a guy that took thirty-minute breaks. It wasn’t long till Harlan was breathing hard and sweating into his earflaps.  

            Half an hour later, as Harlan was hustling a ladder frame through the tunnel to the lift, he found he couldn’t draw a full breath. His chest had tightened to the point it hurt. He felt dizzy and tired. He recalled the same thing happening a few months earlier when he’d helped unload a truckload of sheet metal. Was it his ticker? The pain was spreading from his chest up the left side of his neck into his jaw. He slowed to a walk, feeling sick to his stomach.  

            On the lift, ascending to the gallery floor with Mark and a load of scaffolding, Harlan realized his lead man was staring at him.
“You look like a ghost,” Mark said.

            Feel like one too, he thought.

            When they got off the lift Mark made him sit down on the grain conveyor to rest. The younger man unloaded the scaffold parts by himself and took them out onto the roof while Harlan watched. Harlan hated rubbernecking while somebody else did his work but he knew he needed a breather. 
In time his heart slowed and he was able to catch his breath. The ache that had climbed into his jaw fell back into his chest and faded. He no longer felt exhausted, just a little sleepy. He wondered if he should see a doctor to find out what was going on. Thing was, he didn’t trust doctors. Not after what they did to his mom and sister.  

            When Harlan felt ready to work he went outside into the blowing snow. He found Mark on top of fifteen feet of scaffold, attaching a cross brace. Harlan tossed a rope up to his partner and they used it to lift the scaffold parts. Harlan tied on the parts and Mark pulled them up and added them to the rising tower. In time the scaffold reached twenty feet, then thirty. At thirty-five feet, not far below the elbow, Mark asked for the two plywood boards. These he lifted one at a time and slid into place on the scaffold top, creating a work platform. Harlan climbed to the platform, making himself go slow. 

            With socket wrenches they began removing the bolts that held the damaged elbow in the spout. On the elbow’s belly was a long slit, wide enough for Harlan to slip his fingers into. Soybeans, he thought. They’ll eat through anything. Most of the bolts came out under muscle power, but four had rusted in place. Even half a can of WD-40 couldn’t unfreeze them. 

            “Let’s knock off for lunch,” Mark said. “We’ll bring up the cutting torch when we come back.”   

            Mark took the company pickup to a restaurant while Harlan carried his lunchbox into the elevator break room, which he found packed with first shift crew. Soon the guys returned to work, leaving Harlan by himself at a long table surrounded by folding chairs. It was kind of nice being alone, so quiet he could hear wind sighing on the flashing. 

            He finished his lunch and the last of the coffee in his thermos while watching for the company pickup through the window. The snow had stopped but the wind was blowing hard as ever. Two saplings lashed the air under a heavy gray sky.

            Harlan continued his vigil until beyond the end of their lunch break, then put on his coat and hardhat and walked to the elevator through a parking lot drifted with snow. He stood inside the elevator entrance as the concrete floor draw warmth from his feet. Finally Mark arrived, steering the pickup onto the scale. Harlan helped him unload the upright cart bearing the cutting torch and two cast iron bottles. As the cart slid off the tailgate the big bottles clanged. 

            Up on their work platform, Mark opened the gas jets on the torch. Oxygen and acetylene whooshed. He tripped his striker, igniting the gas with a soft pop. He adjusted the gas mix until the pale blue cutting flame drew to a sharp point, then lowered the point to a rusted bolt head and moved the torch around, heating the bolt uniformly until it glowed red hot, then white hot. When the bolt began to melt, he pumped the oxygen trigger, blowing away liquid steel in splashes. 
He blew until the paired boltholes were clean, then moved to the next rusted bolt and began heating it. Soon only one bolt remained—on top of the elbow at its higher end. The lower end was held in place by a drift pin jammed through boltholes.

            Before melting the last bolt, Mark asked Harlan to get underneath the elbow and support it. Back when he was young, Harlan wouldn’t have thought twice. But he wasn’t young and the elbow looked heavy. He pointed to a bracket several feet above them. “Why don’t we get the come-along and hook it to that? Then we can hold the elbow up.”   

            “The come-along is down in the truck,” Mark said. He sounded annoyed.

            Harlan was used to having his ideas shot down. After all, why should anybody listen to him? He moved underneath the elbow, put his hands on his knees and pushed up with his back. He heard the rasp of Mark’s striker, the pop of the torch igniting. Soon molten metal was falling on the scaffold boards and splattering at Harlan’s feet. Fiery pills rolled to the crack between the boards and fell through.  

            The elbow got very heavy all at once, pressing down hard on Harlan’s back, buckling his knees. The drift pin slammed the platform. Harlan’s legs, straining under the weight, began to shake. He reached back and up with both arms to keep the elbow from rolling off him and a sharp pain tore through his right shoulder, making him grunt. Mark killed the torch and helped support the elbow. Together they lowered it to the platform. 

            “You all right?” Mark asked.

            “Not sure.” He’d felt something pop in his back. Now a throbbing ache burned beneath his shoulder blade. Pulled muscle, he decided. Over the years Harlan had had his share of those and they usually weren’t a big deal. His injury didn’t become a big deal until he began climbing down the scaffold. As his right arm lifted past his ear, pain tore through his shoulder and the fire flared. He gave his descent full attention, using his left arm to bear his weight, but even so, the pain when he raised his right arm made his eyes water. He couldn’t remember ever having a pulled muscle like this one.

            Mark broke down the scaffold and lowered the parts while Harlan received and untied with his left hand. When they returned the parts to the storeroom, Harlan’s left shoulder did the carrying. On their first trip through the tunnel they scared up a mouse. Mark dumped his ladder frame and chased the scrambling rodent, trapping it against the wall. He brought it to Harlan clamped between his cotton gloves, its tail drooping. 

            Suddenly Mark’s gloves flew apart. He looked surprised. The mouse fell to the floor. “The little shit bit me!” 

            What did you expect? Harlan thought.

            Mark caught the mouse again. Holding it by its tail as it twisted and pawed the air he took it into the storeroom. A minute later he exited, carrying a gallon paint can by its wire handle. Harlan could hear the mouse scratching inside. What on earth did a grown man want with a mouse, he wondered.  

            The paint can accompanied them upstairs on the lift. Mark carried it out onto the roof and set it down in the snow next to the cutting torch. He unwound a few feet of hose and lit the torch. After adjusting the flame, he squatted. Above the sound of the torch roaring inside the can rose high pitched squeals. Soon there was only roaring and the smell of burnt fur. The torch popped twice as Mark shut it off. Looking pleased, he tipped the can so Harlan could see.

            Harlan didn’t want to see. 
            “Suit yourself.” Mark took the can to the edge of the roof and upended it, dumping the carcass over the side.

            As they drove back to Wichita the sun finally appeared, a blazing red ball pinched between clouds and earth. Snowfields glowed a rosy pink and hedgerows cast long shadows. Harlan hadn’t moved his arm for some time but still the pain throbbed in his back.

            Mark broke a long silence. “Harlan,” he said, “you had a rough day. But you never quit trying—and I like that.”

            The older man, embarrassed, remained silent.

            “Wouldn’t mind working with you again.”

            Hell’s bells!  He wants to team up, Harlan realized with a jolt.      

            At the plant Harlan raised the freight entrance door and Mark drove the pickup into the shop so they could unload it. Harlan was in turmoil, worried about becoming Mark’s regular helper, which he figured could be the end of him. Without thinking, he picked up his toolbox with his right hand. Fire tore through his shoulder. The toolbox stayed on the truck bed. 

            The boss was approaching. “How’d it go?” he asked.

            “Went good,” said Mark.

            “Great,” said Mr. Lewin, smiling now. “Really glad to hear it. Had a mind to drive up there and check on you two but never got the chance.”   

            Pleasing his employer should have made Harlan happy. Instead he felt guilt. He knew what Mr. Lewin didn’t know, that he’d crapped out twice in one shift. Worse yet, he’d hurt his shoulder and if it stayed the way it was he was going to have trouble up in Emporia.       

            “Good man you got here,” Mark was saying, looking at Harlan.

            “Don’t I know it,” said the boss.       

            Harlan thought he’d better make his move. “He cooked a mouse.”

            “What?” said Mr. Lewin.

            Mark looked startled.

            “He caught a mouse at the elevator and cooked it with the cutting torch. Pretty wild.”

            Revulsion flickered across Mr. Lewin’s face. Then he smiled. “Okay, boys, I’ll let you get back to it. Really appreciate you going out today.” Hugging his shoulders against the wind blowing in through the freight entrance, the boss walked back toward the office. 

            “Why’d you tell him that?” Mark demanded.

            “Tell him what?”
            “About the mouse.”   

            “Why not? Just a mouse.”

            Mark gave him a dirty look. “You’re a bigger dummy than I thought.” He climbed into the pickup and started it. Backing out, he gunned the engine unnecessarily.

            Somehow the dummy remembered to use his left arm to pull down on the chain that lowered the freight entrance door. Somehow he had the wit to hide his smile until the falling door blocked his lead man’s sour face. Ex-lead man, Harlan thought, because it didn’t take a genius to know this would be their last day working together. That is, if Mark had anything to say about it.

 

©2013 William Hart

 

 

Author Links

 

'One Bad Day': story by William Hart in The Front View

'Shootout': story by Hart in thievesjargon

Buy Never Fade Away

Buy Operation Supergoose

 

 

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