Sitting on the second floor of this spent piece of cement with the rebar sticking out all over it, I know I am safe. That the foundation is solid. The glass from last year’s wine bottles are dust, and Bel is talking about shoveling coke into the train dumps at the smelter. He’s telling me how the stuff makes a chemical super-fire in the blast furnaces. This fire separates arsenic and antimony from the copper. He hears the engineers talk about it at lunch while he pairs poison out from under his fingernails with a splintered axe handle.
“It’s funny,” he says, now, talking about the engineers. “What some people know, others can’t know. I only catch half of what those guys say and I barely follow then.”
Parts of him are so black from the dust that the skin he has kept covered all day seems to shine. He paces back and forth across the top of this old slab of blast furnace. It exploded before our time. We like to sit on it and look down the valley at the moon coming over the Highlands. Pass back a bottle of Wild Rose. But he is not sitting now, and as he walks he sets his jaw and steps silently to the brink of the old furnace toward the moon like he is challenging it and the valley below it. The houses. The haunts of our childhood. He puffs his chest out like a wolf bawling at the sky, but he threatens silently. I can see how strong he is by the grooves of his triceps. The bellows pumping in his chest. He was something to watch on the wrestling mat. He paces back and forth slamming fist into hand, and finally says, “Let’s get on with it then.”
I say, “Alright,” because I know that something has been smoldering inside of him since he’s been back here. I can see his chest fanning the embers in his eyes. I can hear the way his voice crackles around his words. He needs to blow the embers inside of him out before they flare up like a pine forest when the cherry of a smoke’s butt ricochets off the highway and the sparks leaping off the ash settle below the wet foliage, burn the dry leaves beneath, then burst and burn down every damn thing in sight before anyone ever even knows it was there. I can see that fire burning in him, and I know how he aims to put it out. I know he’s looking to fight.
I say, “Alright, Bel, let’s go find us that special someone.”
We jump in his car and head to the King. On the way down his teeth keep grinding, and the sound of it is like a grist-stone. He wrings the steering wheel, white-knuckling, and then pheasants run into the road in front of us. He slams on the breaks.
He says, “You ever been hunting those?”
“I have never been hunting anything,” I say, but of course he knows that.
“Those are the stupidest bunch a birds,” he says. “You can just walk up and kick the bastards. Don’t even need the gun.”
At the King, the bells jingle on the door handle as we enter. The lamps are blotted by smoke, but the neon in the jukebox smears itself across the dirt in the air like the water left behind a wet bar rag. I see his reflection in the mirror on the ledge behind Julia. She nods at me and then him. She gives me a smile, and the pity in it stings like a switch. I put a foot on the bar rail and order a round.
Bel left on a wrestling scholarship last summer, but the world beyond this polluted little valley was a strange place for him, dangerous and unfamiliar. It scared him bad, so he threaded an extension cord through the rail of his dorm bunk and tried to hang himself with it. He called me after and said that things hadn’t been going very well for him in Missouri. The wrestlers were different, the people, the water, the birds, everything. All different somehow, like they were creeping up on him instead of taking him in. I would have argued with him, told him that different isn’t necessarily wrong, but he had already tried to deal with it in the wrong ways. So I told him to come home.
“The metal pours out like green water. Green as the clovers on St. Pat’s,” he says, after he’s sat for a few seconds. We let the noise from the jukebox roll over us with the patter of liquor tipped over the brim of a glass, other glasses clinking, everything whispering in our ears. The picture of us wedged behind the bar speaks with that noise. There is expectance in the shine on our young cheeks. I can still feel the fear and the heat of that night. But I never left this town.
“What did you say,” Bel asks.
I look at Bel. I haven’t said a word. I thought he could make it if any of us could. I think I thought that the first time I met him. He was thick up top for a seventh grader, spindly legs, heavy hands, short, the legacy of his father’s father’s labor scrawled into him like initials into the pine of a shaft bracing. Dark eyes, dark hair. Mad man. I can see that in him still, but his wild eyes have turned dangerous and lonesome, desperate. And now he’s trying to hide the shame in them by naming his past. He’s shoveling old names on me: Diabetes Teeth, the Big Smooth, Fur Ball, Schmidty, the Penguin. Old places: Two-Two’s fighting bridge, the Bat Caves, Eagle’s Nest, the Lion’s Den. Old cars: Old No. 1, the De-Virginizer, the Ganja Cruiser, the Menacing Lawn Mower, Cus D. The things that we know about absolutely. Things buried in the past and, in most accounts, gone.
He sags small in his stool, and I will never know what he wants to be talking about. What we should be saying to each other instead of fueling our drunk on old memories. What weight drags heavier than the opponents he used to staple to those foam mats? What load swings heftier than the shovel he haws all day? I am tempted to know. I want to ask him the way of it. But I don’t. So I let him go on until the door opens with a jingling of bells, and the reason we’re here walks through the door.
Bel gets across the room quick, where Pete Nickels who has just walked in.
“Nice hat, Pete,” Bel says. It always starts that way, with a compliment
“What’s wrong with it?” Pete says and takes off the hat, runs his fingers over the boxing Leprechaun embroidered on it.
“Nothing,” Bel says and laughs. “My sister’s got one just like it.”
Pete’s face reddens and Bel knows he has him. He pokes Pete in the chest.
“What about it, Pete, can I set you two up for a tea party?” Bel says, and Pete takes it for the first couple of pokes, seeing the glazed eyes Bel has hung in his face, hearing the slur in Bel’s voice. But then people start to watch. An old smoker playing the slots chuckles raggedy through her missing teeth, and Pete bows to his pride, and they go outside.
The sky is darker. The parking lot is dirt, and rocks, and broken glass. There’s a ditch at the end of it and a light pole. This is where people go to fight when they fight at this bar. The two men fight. They know how. It is measured, raw, stifled. Then it is over. Nickels has a real busted up mouth and Bel is bleeding from his head. He curses at me, punches me in the face for being a Nancy Boy, too, and I drag him across the parking lot by his shirt.
He says, “Stop, I don’t have any shoes on, Dee. I don’t have any shoes on.”
Then we are kids again. We look at each other, and whatever this is, whatever brings us back to this tin and dilapidated part of town to fight in the polluted earth, it has happened a hundred times before, because it is what we are. We are the tin buildings rotting around the edges, and the Buick engine rusting into the river. The stolen shopping cart stuck in the mud and filled with broken green glass. The flickering lights and hardscrabble lots and ripped bar stools. We are the muted juke music drifting through the bite of the cooling air that gets swallowed by the passing birds. And none of us will escape it.
Bel’s shoes sit under the street lamp. They are sprawled out in the familiar sparkle of halogen light on busted glass. He takes out a lighter and rolls the flint across his forearm. He touches the slash Nickels left above his eye. He lifts his torn shirt up to the sky and views the world through the blood soaked in it. Bel covers his face and breathes long and hard into the dirty cloth before putting it back on.
“I got that prick good, huh?” he says.
I want to tell him that what everybody knows is that we all burn down. I want to tell him that what only a few know is that the fire hurts after raging. But I won’t tell him this. I can’t tell him.
Born in Southwest Montana, Danilo Thomas is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama where he is the fiction editor of Black Warrior Review. He lives in Northport, Alabama, with his wife/poet (Ashley), his pit bull (Pirl), and his cat (Sammy). His work can be found in Flying House, Slashpine Anthology, Milk Money, and elsewhere.