Illness smells out the trite like beagles
with noses near to the ground —
like a mother who knows
her daughter’s been smoking
in the bathroom downstairs
a dozen walls away from her.
Suddenly this narrowing
of breakdown lanes, of space to roam,
sidewalks cracking from the ice.
Slippery sunsets, stretching winters,
each hour of spring fresh popcorn
to a starving duck.
Truth becomes too short to hold —
like mustache trimmings in the sink,
like bones that go brittle and snap,
like hay that meets immutable rain.
Don’t we wish it didn’t take
a teapot growing cold and chipped
to make us want the chamomile.
The poem is a rose to press;
the rose is a poem to read —
this might be it
for both the garden and the light.
*First Published in Lily Magazine
Kevin P. Keating
White sunlight pierced the cracked, mud-encrusted windshield of the pickup truck, stinging my one good eye. The woods, green and lush and wild in the full heat of summer, became an impressionistic blur. With trembling fingers I adjusted my eye patch, desperate to see where I was being taken. Dirt and gravel churned beneath the tires of the truck as Hollerin’ Bob, laughing with raucous child-like glee, stomped on the accelerator. Thick rivulets of brown saliva trickled down his scruffy chin. As the truck fishtailed and careened toward a ditch, something sharp gouged the small of my back. I let out a sharp cry of pain and searched the seat for the pocket flashlight I kept in my back pocket but my fingers only scraped a thin layer of grime from the vinyl seat. In weepy-eyed panic, I clutched a new copy of Ulysses to my chest, believing that the words of a great writer like Joyce could be used like some ancient incantation to help protect me from the chaos of life in Coshocton County, Ohio. I need only find the correct page and, with the proper awe and reverence, recite a perplexing passage in a plodding monotone.
Mr. Peaches didn’t believe in magic. With a snort of contempt, he seized the novel, fanned his face with the pages, and then hurled it to the floor. He slouched so low in the seat that the brim of his greasy baseball cap was nearly level with the dashboard, but when he caught me staring at the tattoos on his forearm he sat up, nudged me in the side and waved a nearly empty tin of tobacco under my nose. “Patch, you wanna try some of this?” We hit a dip in the road and he nearly choked on the wad bulging from his ruddy cheeks.
Above the revving engine Hollerin’ Bob bellowed, “Hey, Patch, this sure is a lot differ’nt than the adventures you been readin’ in that damn book.” He slapped my thigh and then jerked the steering wheel hard to the left.
I jostled around the truck wedged between the two men, their thick shoulders knocking my skull with every twist and turn in the dusty country road.
“You ain’t been down to Wills Creek yet, have ya, Patch?” asked Hollerin’ Bob.
I shook my head.
Mr. Peaches picked a few small clumps of tobacco from his crooked yellow teeth. “Damn if there ain’t catfish there that can swallow a baby’s leg,” he said. “You won’t believe your eyes. I mean, your eye.”
The men laughed.
We raced up an anonymous gravel road toward a small shanty hidden by a swatch of underbrush and a grove of diseased pine trees. The shutters of the cottage were lopsided, the porch littered with pinecones and brown needles. No one had any intention of cleaning the place. Even the breeze seemed too listless and lazy to sweep away the debris.
Hollerin’ Bob slammed on the breaks and I knocked my head on the dashboard. “Me and Peaches will run in and get the rods,” he said.
In the distance, a rabbit raised its ears and darted toward the woods. Mr. Peaches leapt from the truck and hurled a rock at the animal. “Damn things are always eatin’ my lettuce and tomatoes,” he murmured. “Don’t know why I bother plantin’ anything down here.”
The men disappeared inside the cottage. I stood outside and leaned against the front bumper. I cocked my head, and made an effort, albeit a half-hearted one, to appreciate the alien serenity of the countryside, but instead of the peculiar clatter of cicadas and the rustle of leaves I heard that incessant kicking and thrashing coming from the back of the truck. I considered making a run for it, driving away in a cloud of dust and a fury of mayflies. The keys were in the ignition. Unable to relax with all that racket, I approached the tailgate. Even from a few paces away the air smelled sharp and pungent. I reached into the bed of the truck and lifted the heavy green tarp. The unblinking red-rimmed eyes of Old Crow stared back at me. Brown packing tape covered his mouth and wound around his head, pulling at his cheeks and making him look like the victim of a botched facelift.
“Hey, man,” I said. “How you doing back here? Pretty hot under this tarp, huh? Well, I think the game’s over. I’m pretty sure they’re gonna let you go now.”
Old Crow closed his eyes, shook his head. Heavy beads of sweat trickled down his cheeks.
I smiled and tried to explain it to him in the simplest way I knew how. “They’re only fucking with you, that’s all. You understand, right?”
A mosquito landed on my forearm and I squashed it with a sharp slap.
“Bugs eating you?” I asked. “They’re pretty annoying, aren’t they?” Behind me, I heard footsteps. “Here they come.” From the corner of my eye, I saw Hollerin’ Bob carrying three fishing rods. Mr. Peaches cradled a case of beer in his arms. “Just remember. This wasn’t my idea.” I dropped the tarp back over Old Crow’s head.
“That’s not part of the rules!” Hollerin’ Bob proclaimed. Every word uttered by Hollerin’ Bob was some kind of proclamation. “No peeking aloud.” He huffed as he marched, his prodigious gut wobbling from side to side. Flies buzzed around his eyes and he swatted at them as best he could. When he reached the truck, he tossed the rods into the bed where they landed with a loud clatter next to the shifting tarp. The kicking and thrashing grew more intense, and Hollerin’ Bob shouted, “Shut up back there or we ain’t never gonna let you out!”
Mr. Peaches stuffed a beer into my hand. The two men watched me closely and because I knew this was some kind of test–of camaraderie, conformity, machismo–I accepted the beer and gulped it down. After I finished it Mr. Peaches handed me another. I drank that down, too. One long steady gulp.
“How does that make you feel, Patch?” asked Hollerin’ Bob.
I nodded. “Not bad.”
Hollerin’ Bob laughed. He leaned over the bed of the truck and shouted, “Did ya hear that? Not bad, he said, not bad!”
For the rest of that afternoon we drove in circles I think, I’m not sure, just up and down the same dirt roads, drinking and farting and belching until evening. I felt inept, feeble, a delicate city boy who couldn’t grasp their world of dirt roads and 4x4s any more than they could grasp my world of books and university life.
As I stared at the big bugs bursting in bright green globs against the windshield, Hollerin’ Bob turned to me. “Let me ask you something, Patch. What made you start on books? Were you a sensitive boy? Hmmm? I only ask because I think my son might be, you know, a sensitive boy. Bookish and what not. Tell you what I think done it to him. The belt. I used come home from work, tired as hell, and I used to whoop him with my belt. I couldn’t help it. I ain’t got no patience for kids. Now he has his nose in a book all the time. Never talks to me.”
Mr. Peaches cracked open another beer. “My boy ain’t like that.” He took a long swig. “I once put my boy in an inner tube and floated him out to the middle of Will’s Creek. I tied one end of the rope to the tube and the other end to a tree and let him drift. Them catfish came right up and tried to swallow his little legs like they was worms. Never heard a child scream so loud. After a half hour or so he finally stopped makin’ such a fuss and just sorta slumped over. He never picked up a book as far as I know. You ever catch a catfish, Patch?”
“Well, you’re gonna catch one today.”
I found that in some vaguely shameful way I admired these men. They were a tough pair and seemed impervious to trouble. They didn’t worry about drinking too much, staying out too late, behaving respectably, saying the right things. They simply didn’t give a damn. Marriage didn’t matter because their wives didn’t matter. And their children feared them, feared the crack of the belt against their backs, the smell of alcohol when they burst through the door demanding a hot supper. But despite their hardnosed, old school ethos, they had been very good to me, gladly instructing me about their trade. They were middle-aged boilermakers who described themselves as “lifers” while I was just some college kid trying to earn money for next semester. “We been welding and grinding and hammering for longer’n you been alive,” Mr. Peaches liked to remind me.
My uncle, a prominent labor leader from Cleveland, arranged it so I could stay with them at their cottage. “You can’t go wrong,” my uncle told me. “The rent is free. Besides, they’re good men. You’ll learn a lot from them.” My uncle was right of course. When I first arrived at the cottage several weeks ago, I came prepared with an arsenal of books, Borges and Calvino and Saramago, but the education I was to receive would not consist of a careful analysis of postmodern fiction. Without opening their mouths, the men supplied me with a remarkable amount of information. Their bodies were veritable roadmaps of tragedy and misfortune, their eyes ruined from endless hours of welding, their knees shattered from particularly nasty falls, their bones improperly mended together in odd and lumpy configurations, their teeth chipped or crooked or missing altogether, their noses red and pitted from excessive drink.
The cottage, more of a child’s tree house than a habitable dwelling, had no electricity, and at night, as the men played cards by candlelight and drank beer at a makeshift table made of particle board and sawhorses, I tried to read with my pocket flashlight. The batteries never lasted very long and I always ended up tossing and turning on a mattress in a corner. Like a child who wants to hide from monsters lurking in his closet, I pulled the sheets over my face, trying to shut out the smell of cigarettes and the sound of high-pitched, whinnying laughter.
We worked at the power plant ten miles down the road. As an unskilled laborer I did all the grunt work and spent my days organizing toolboxes, detangling electrical cords, and securing ropes. I lifted loads, hauled away scrap metal, got the men coffee and water during breaks. From a safe distance I watched as cranes lifted heavy steel plates high into the air. The men scrambled along narrow planks of scaffolding, reached out to grab the plates, and then welded them to the exterior of giant cylinders. The strange language of the trade unions left me in a state of total confusion. Haggard and grim-faced, their cheeks black with grime, they shouted at me in a code I couldn’t quite comprehend: “Get me a new stinger. I need a crescent. Find me some more rod. 7018. Turn my machine down ten. Tie me a sheepshank. Where’s that chippin’ hammer?” I can’t say that I entirely adapted to this new environment–my mind had been conditioned to respond to the detailed instructions of soft-spoken, high-strung intellectuals, not the terse commands of sweating, short-tempered boilermakers–but Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches taught me, as best they could, how to swing a hammer properly and how to really drive a nail home. They showed me how to tie a dozen different knots, how to grind welds until they were flush with the metal, how to use an acetylene torch to cut through rivets. They even took me to a store in town and told me which steel-toed boots to buy, which leather gloves would last longest, and which long sleeved flannel shirts would best protect my arms from cascading sparks.
As part of their initiation process, the men teased and tormented me. One day, Hollerin’ Bob, a swaggering bull of a man, walloped the back of my legs with a plank of wood. Mr. Peaches emptied my lunch box and replaced my pita chips and hummus with chicken bones and a Moon Pie. They drew obscene pictures in the books I read at lunchtime, Isaac Singer and H.P. Lovecraft. They laughed at my outrage and jovially explained, “We’re just fuckin’ with you.” I soon found out that, as a rule, boilermakers were continually fucking with one another, it was their code, and no one was exempt from it.
Everyone also had a nickname, each an allusion to some kind of catastrophe that left the men physically or psychologically scarred for life–Giraffeneck, Leper, Monkey, Cockburn, Girly, Mudflap–and I knew and addressed my co-workers by these various monikers. My own nickname came quite easily, a gift from the gods. This was during my third week on the job. We’d been working another twelve-hour shift and the summer sun had taken its toll on me. Too exhausted to watch where I was going, I carelessly wandered behind Old Crow, a humorless journeyman who’d only spoken to me on a few occasions, usually to berate me in some way. “Watch yourself now, pretty boy,” he’d say. “Don’t get your hair mussed. He-heh-ha! Watch that lilly white skin. Might get a sunburn. He-hah-heh!”
With his arms working like pistons, Old Crow pulled up a hundred yards of torch hose through the steel grating of the power plant. The small metal bits attached to the end of the hose flashed in the late afternoon sun, and before I could leap out of the way, one of the metal bits struck my eye, shattering the contact lens into a dozen miniscule shards. I screamed and writhed on the ground, clutching my face.
Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches took me to the nearest emergency room (a thirty mile drive), and the doctor, a small Indian man with a disdainful frown, plucked the pieces out of my eye one by one and softly scolded me for wincing and blinking. “You must cooperate,” he stated flatly. I could smell cigarettes on his fingertips. “Am I going to be blind?” I whimpered. He paused. “Keep still.” When he finished he handed me an eye patch and told me to wear it for a week, then he quickly scribbled a prescription for eye drops. “Apply them twice a day.” I clutched the piece of paper to my chest and whined, “But am I damaged for life?” His disdain seemed to deepen, bordered on impatience, disgust, revulsion. “No, your eye is perfectly fine. Apply the drops.” He yanked the white curtain open and marched off, giving me the unmistakable impression that he was sickened to be in the presence of another stupid redneck. He never even asked how the accident had happened and probably assumed that I’d fallen out of a tree or jumped off a garage or got into a fistfight at some squalid roadhouse.
On the drive back to the cottage, Hollerin’ Bob muttered, “Goddamn towel head He ain’t got no business talking to you like that.”
After the accident, the foreman stationed me in the tool room and told me to watch my step, to look sharp, to pay attention. When the men came in I handed them crescent wrenches and extension cords and sledgehammers. They whistled when they saw the yellow bruise forming around my eye, asked how I was holding up, and jokingly called me Patch. The name stuck.
Then one day, just before the afternoon whistle blew, Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches appeared in the doorway.
“Hey, Patch!” Hollerin’ Bob shouted.
“Yeah, hiya, Patch,” Mr. Peaches giggled like a mischievous schoolboy.
“We got a surprise for you, Patch. Out in the truck.”
“Yeah, Patch, a big surprise. Come and take a look.”
I only wanted to go back to the cottage, to collapse on the dirty mattress, to sleep until fall arrived when I could return to my insular world of Derrida and deconstruction, but what choice did I have? Reluctantly I followed the men out to the pickup truck to see their insipid surprise.
The moon flickered through the treetops now, its green goblin glow transforming me into a local yokel, and when we hit a bump in the road I burst into a fit of sloppy laughter, enjoying the novelty of my stupid intoxication. Hollerin’ Bob seemed to appreciate this metamorphosis, seemed almost relieved by it, and like a madman he swung the truck across the width of the road. Fireflies floated through the vast darkness like constellations. The sweet smell of honeysuckle and lilac and a hundred different wildflowers, so very different from the sulfurous stench surrounding the power plant, all merged together and became charged with mystery.
Once again, Mr. Peaches caught me studying his meaty forearms, the skull, the cross, the gothic letters, and when Hollerin’ Bob stopped the truck and switched off the lights each symbol seemed to pulsate and float in the darkness.
“Come on, Patch,” Mr. Peaches said. “Let’s get the fishin’ rods.”
The men seemed to understand the darkness and moved forward with confidence.
I toppled out of the truck. A pile of empty beer cans clattered to the ground, a cacophonous musical accompaniment to our reckless adventure.
“You okay, Patch?”
“You’re good friends, both of you,” I said. “You could have left me back at the cabin. Left me to my books.” My words became a string of insensible syllables, the low croaking of a toad swallowed whole by the ravenous darkness and then regurgitated from the night’s grumbling guts. In a drunken dance, I crushed the cans under my boots and then stomped through the mud, stumbling over branches, banging my knees against trees, scraping my arm on thorns. I looked up to the stars for guidance but the thick canopy of leaves hid them from view. The night was so impenetrable that I felt trapped at the bottom of those terrible smokestacks or pinned under that stinking green tarp in the bed of the truck. Then I remembered, dimly, that Old Crow was still back there but the memory was as faint as the glowing red ember of the cigarette that now guided me.
Someone thrust a rod into my hand.
“Come along, Patch.”
“Okay,” I said. “But what about whatshisname?”
I hiccupped. “Old Crow.”
I don’t know why but I felt my stomach tighten as Mr. Peaches, his hot breath stinking of tobacco, leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “What’s wrong with you, huh? You a nigger lover or something? That jig’ll be just fine. Them Africans, they’re used to the heat. Besides, he fucked with you. Fucked with you bad. A man fucks with you, you gotta fuck with him right back. Maybe you don’t understand that. Maybe that’s â€˜cause you ain’t got balls enough to stand up for yourself.”
Mr. Peaches spit on the ground and he and Hollerin’ Bob marched off to the creek.
For what seemed like a very long time, I shuddered in the darkness and jumped at every snapping branch. Wild turkeys roamed these woods, an occasional fox, sometimes a coyote or two. I heard, or imagined I heard, high-pitched screams, animals in heat, sounds so menacing that I unzipped my pants and pissed on the back tire because I was afraid I might wet myself.
Without Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches to lead the way, I was helpless, blind as a mole, and I had to feel my way back to the cab of the truck where I sifted through the crumpled cigarette cartons and tobacco tins until my fingers came across the pocket flashlight. I flicked it on. My copy of Ulysses was still on the floor, its pages darkened by soot, but seeing that ancient name in big bold letters suddenly inspired me, and I pointed my little beam of light into the night and went to the bed of the truck.
“Don’t worry, Old Crow,” I said, “I’m coming, buddy.”
I thought that maybe Old Crow was dead. Judging from the way Hollerin’ Bob had been driving that day, it was distinct possibility. But when I lifted the tarp and started to unravel the tape around his mouth, Old Crow came to life, his eyes rolling around in his head like bright red marbles in a black bowl.
“Whoa!” I said. “Calm down. It’s just me. I’ll get you out of here in minute.”
After pulling the last of the tape off his mouth, he gasped and said, “Hurry now, do my hands.”
“Right,” I said and giggled. “Musta been a heck of a ride back here!”
I set the flashlight aside and worked slowly, methodically, picking at the tape with my jagged nails. After a Herculean effort, I managed to get Old Crow’s hands free. He sat up, rubbed his wrists, and then, without looking at me, without even saying thank you, he lashed out and struck my jaw with a clenched fist. I fell backwards, knocking my head against the tailgate. My head was cracked open, I was sure of it, shards of bone protruding through my scalp. Dazed, I watched as Old Crow yanked the tape off his ankles. He stood up and then delivered a swift, solid kicked to my side with one of his steel-toed boots. I couldn’t breathe, thought my ribs were crushed into a fine powder, a white dust that seeped into my lungs and choked me. I reached out for help but Old Crow grabbed the flashlight and hurried down the desolate country road in silence. Like a groveling dog, I got to my hands and knees. I panted, gasped, tried to scream at him, curse him, threaten him. “You dirty, black sonofabitch!” I rasped. “Hollerin’ Bob will get you! Mr. Peaches will get you! You’ll see. They were right about you after all. They’ll get you!”
A certain amount of time elapsed, I wasn’t sure how much, but at some point during the night I heard Hollerin’ Bob’s booming voice echo inside my skull. “Get the kid up! Get the kid up!”
I clutched my head, climbed down from the bed of the truck and made my way to the cab. Terrified that Old Crow might appear out of the darkness and strangle me, I locked the doors and flicked on the headlights.
Through a dense tangle of branches, Hollerin’ Bob emerged like a Sasquatch, his eyes beaming from behind a thick growth of beard, his shoulders hunched, his hands, heavy with drink, batting away bugs. Behind him, Mr. Peaches carried a gigantic catfish by the gills, its slimy brown dorsal dragging in the dust. The men showed me their prize and boasted of their struggle to pull the leviathan from the muddy waters of the creek. They tossed the fish into the bed of the truck, too drunk to notice that Old Crow was gone. I told them nothing. Bleary-eyed, beaten, bruised, I pretended to admire their catch and felt relieved that our adventure was now over.
At last we arrived at the dilapidated cottage, and without bothering to recover my copy of Ulysses from the floor of the truck, I staggered off to my mattress in the corner. Before I drifted off to sleep I wondered if in fact I was the protagonist of this adventure or if I was simply a minor character who appeared but briefly in one episode in the ongoing adventures of another man. And while my mind puzzled over the implications of this idea, I grew drowsy and gratefully descended into the oblivion of a deep and dreamless sleep.