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Kevin P. Keating teaches English at Baldwin Wallace College in Cleveland, Ohio. He has published several columns and his fiction has appeared extensively in various prestigious journals like The Oklahoma review, Inertia, Exquisite Corpse, to name only a few. In April 2004, he was awarded 2nd Place in the Lorain County/Ohio Arts Council Contest for Fiction.

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hite 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.

The truck fishtailed and careened toward a ditch. Suppressing a sharp cry of pain, I searched the seat for the pocket flashlight, screwdriver, drill bit, whatever the hell it was that gouged the small of my back, but my fingers only scraped a thin layer of grime from the vinyl before finding my copy of Ulysses. I clutched the book to my chest as though it were a talisman because a small part of me still believed that the words of a great writer could protect me from the chaos of life in Gehenna, Ohio. I need only find the correct page and with the proper awe and reverence recite a passage in the plodding monotone of my perpetually glowering professors.

Mr. Peaches didn’t believe in education. 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. He picked his teeth and farted with indifference, but when he caught me staring at the menacing tattoos on his meaty forearms--the skull, the cross, the large gothic letters that stretched across his sun damaged flesh--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.

Hollerin’ Bob bellowed above the revving engine, “Hey, Patch, this sure is a lot different than the adventures you been readin’ in them damn books of yers.” He slapped my thigh and jerked the steering wheel hard to the left.

I jostled around the truck, wedged between the two giants whose bodies gave off evil smelling odors, their thick shoulders bruising my head with every twist and turn in the dusty country road.

“You ain’t been down to Sheol Creek, have ya, Patch?” asked Hollerin’ Bob.

Mr. Peaches dislodged a few small clumps of tobacco from the corner of his mouth. “Damn if there ain’t catfish that can swallow a baby’s leg.

You won’t believe yer eyes. I mean, yer eye.”

The men looked at each other and laughed.

We raced down an anonymous gravel road toward a small shanty hidden by a grove of pine trees, the trunks twisted with disease and infested with ants. 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 summer breeze seemed too listless to sweep away the debris. Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches had built it with their own hands, a simple cottage with an open floor plan and a creaking loft that was in danger of collapsing. It had no electricity and no running water, and each night as the men played cards by candlelight and drank shots of whiskey at a makeshift table made of particle board and sawhorses. I climbed the ladder to the sweltering loft and tried to read with my pocket flashlight. The batteries never lasted very long, and I ended up tossing and turning on a mattress in a corner infested with creeping things. Like a child who wants to hide from monsters lurking in his closet, I often pulled the sheets over my head, hoping to shut out the smell of cigarettes and the sound of high-pitched, whinnying laughter.

Now Mr. Peaches grabbed a handful of rocks and lobbed them into the weeds. A rabbit raised its ears and darted toward the woods.

“Damn things keep eatin’ my tomatoes,” he grumbled. “Don’t know why I

bother plantin’ anything.”

Hollerin’ Bob slammed on the breaks. “Wait here,” he instructed me.

Both men disappeared inside the cottage, and for a moment I considered making a run for it, driving away in a cloud of dust and mayflies, but in a half-hearted effort to appreciate the alien serenity of the countryside, I paused to listen to the sounds of nature and to breathe in the heady perfume of wildflowers, so very different from the sulfurous stench surrounding the power plant, but instead of rustling leaves and birdsong I heard kicking and thrashing coming from the bed of the truck. Unable to relax, I hopped out of the cab, approached the tailgate, and lifted a corner of the heavy green tarp.

“Hey, man,” I whispered, glancing quickly back at the cottage. “How you holding up back here?

From the darkness two terrified eyes stared back at me.

“Pretty hot under this tarp, I bet. Well, don’t worry, I think the game’s almost over. I’m pretty sure they’re gonna let you go now.”

The man closed his eyes and shook his head frantically from side to side. Heavy beads of sweat poured down his cheeks.

“They’re only fucking with you, that’s all,” I tried to assure him.

I waited for him to answer before I realized that he couldn’t speak with the brown packing tape wrapped around his mouth. They’d wound it around his head so tight that it pulled his cheeks back and made him look like the victim of a botched facelift.

A mosquito landed on my forearm. I squashed it with a sharp slap.

“Bugs are pretty annoying, aren’t they?” From the corner of my eye I glimpsed Hollerin’ Bob carrying three fishing rods and Mr. Peaches cradling a case of beer in his arms. “Just remember,” I whispered, “this wasn’t my idea.” I dropped the tarp and casually walked back to the cab of the pickup truck.

“That ain’t part of the rules!” Hollerin’ Bob shouted, his prodigious gut wobbling from side to side. “No peeking allowed.” 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. Under the tarp, the kicking and thrashing grew more intense.

“Keep it down back there,” Mr. Peaches said, a cigarette clamped between his teeth. He stuffed a beer into my hand, and the two men watched me closely.

Although I couldn’t be sure, I suspected that this was some kind of test--of camaraderie, conformity, machismo--so I gulped it down in one long swig.

“How does that make you feel, Patch?”

I nodded. “Okay, I guess.”

Hollerin’ Bob giggled and lifted the tarp a little. “Did ya hear that, Old Crow? It makes Patch feel better!”

For the rest of that afternoon we drove in circles, just up and down the same dirt roads, killing time after our shift, and as I listened to the kicking and moaning coming from the bed of the truck I felt a sense of horror and exhilaration.


I knew I’d finally run out of options when I took the job as an apprentice at the power plant in Gehenna. My classes at the university had not been going well. Although I’d chosen English as my field of study, my real major, since I rarely attended class and never submitted papers, was smoking dope while watching the films of Stanley Kubrick. In my view the psychedelic finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey had more to say about human existence than Henry James’s Daisy Miller, but my parents saw things differently, and each time I spoke to them on the phone their threats sounded more and more menacing.

“Goddammit!” my father shouted one afternoon as I nursed another epic hangover on the couch.

“Hi, Dad. Calling from the golf course?”

“Don’t give me that shit. Your grades showed up at the house today.”

“Did they?”

“Yes, yes they did. And do you know what? I’m not paying one more cent for you to sit around your dorm and bullshit with your buddies and drink beer. You’re on your own.”

I tried to sound meek, but there was no disguising the stench of alcohol on my breath. I could hear my dad sniffing out the poisonous green fumes through the receiver.

“Dad, did I mention that tuition for the summer semester is due in one week? After that I’m sure I can swing things on my own.” There was a long pause and then the phone went dead.

An ominous sign.

Though it seemed incomprehensible, I needed to find a job. The dreaded slide into mediocrity had finally begun. That night I got wasted and called my uncle, a prominent labor leader from Cleveland, who agreed to set me up with a job.

“The only thing I have right now is in southern Ohio,” he said. “I can hook you up with a couple of guys who’ll let you stay with them rent free. But you better prepare yourself for some rough living.”

The next morning I packed up my car and made the three-hour drive into the Appalachian foothills. Working as a boilermaker in a power plant was certainly a new experience for me, and I can’t say that I entirely adapted to my new environment. I’d been conditioned to respond to the detailed instructions of soft-spoken, high-strung intellectuals, not to the terse commands of sweating, short-tempered tradesmen. “Get me a new stinger. I need a crescent. Find me some more rod. Turn my machine down ten. Tie me a sheepshank. Where’s that chippin’ hammer?” The strange language of the unions left me in a state of total confusion, but as an unskilled laborer I had to translate their words as best I could and do all of the grunt work. I spent my days organizing toolboxes, detangling electrical cords, hauling away scrap metal, and getting the men coffee during their breaks.

Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches became my guardians and taught me how to use an acetylene torch to cut through rusty rivets and how to grind welds until they were flush with the metal. They even took me to a store in town and told me which steel-toed boots to buy, which leather gloves would last the longest, and which long sleeved flannel shirts would best protect my arms from cascading sparks.

Before driving to the power plant each morning where cranes roared to life at the crack of dawn, we went to a roadside diner and ordered breakfast from the same plucky middle-aged waitress who winked and flashed me two rows of crooked teeth, and each afternoon we stopped at the corner store to buy a case of beer from the same ornery old man who looked me up and down and scowled with derision.

As part of their initiation process, the boilermakers 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 and laughed when I sputtered with rage.

“Hey, man, we’re just fuckin’ with you,” they explained, and I soon discovered that as a rule boilermakers continually “fucked with” one another.

During my third week at the power plant the foreman teamed me up with Old Crow, a humorless journeyman and the only black guy I’d seen on the job. He didn’t seem particularly pleased to be working with “the college kid” or too eager to talk, but during the few hours we spent together I learned that his real name was Ulysses.

“That’s funny,” I said. “I’m an English major, used to be anyway, and I’ve been trying to read Ulysses for like a month now. I can’t figure it out.”

He removed his welding hood, scratched the tip of his nose, and smirked.

“Never heard of it,” he said. “Now go find me some more rod. And watch yourself, pretty boy. Don’t get your hair mussed.”

We were working another twelve-hour shift, and the long hours and the hot sun were beginning to take their toll on me. Too exhausted to look where I was going, I carelessly wandered behind Old Crow who’d started pulling up a torch hose through the steel grating. The small metal bits attached to the end of the hose suddenly flashed in the afternoon sun and before I could leap out of the way one of the metal bits struck my eye, shattering my contact lens into a dozen miniscule shards.

I fell to my knees and writhed on the ground, clutching my face.

“Christ almighty,” Old Crow murmured. “Hold still while I get some help.”

Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches drove me to the hospital where the doctor, a small Indian man who spoke a mixture of English and Bengali frowned as he worked, plucking the pieces from my eye one by one and softly scolding me every time I winced or moaned.

“You must cooperate,” he stated flatly. I could smell cigarettes on his fingertips.

“Will I be blind?” I whimpered.

“Just keep still.” His frown seemed to deepen and bordered on revulsion. “Your eye is perfectly fine.”

When he finished his work, the doctor handed me an eye patch and told me to wear it for a week. Then he scribbled prescriptions for an antibiotic, steroids, eye drops, and with that he yanked open the white curtain and hurried away, giving me the unmistakable impression that he was glad to be rid of another stupid redneck. He never even asked how the accident happened, probably assuming that I’d fallen out of a tree or jumped off the roof of a garage or had a fistfight in some squalid roadhouse.

On the drive back to the cottage, Mr. Peaches grumbled, “Goddamn towel head.”

“Fuckin’ sand niggers oughta go back where they come from,” Hollerin’ Bob said. “Here, have a beer.” And he thrust a can into my still trembling hand.

At the power plant the next morning the foreman stationed me in the tool room and told me to watch my step, to look sharp, to pay attention. The men whistled when they saw the yellow bruise forming around my eye and commiserated with me. Every boilermaker had a nickname, normally an allusion to some long forgotten catastrophe that left the man

physically or psychologically scarred for life--Giraffeneck, Leper, Monkey, Cockburn, Girly, Mudflap, Jittery, Quasimodo, a million names for a million different misfortunes--and it didn’t take them long to think of “Patch.”

Just before the afternoon whistle blew, Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches appeared in the doorway, giggling like mischievous schoolboys.

“We got a surprise for you, Patch. Out in the truck.”

“Yeah, Patch, a big surprise. Come and take a look.”

I wanted to go back to the cottage, collapse on the dirty mattress, sleep until the fall semester started when I could return to my insular world of Derrida and deconstruction, but I knew I had no choice and reluctantly followed the men out to the truck to see what lunacy they had in store for me.


Fireflies floated through the vast darkness like constellations, and in my drunken stupor I leaned forward and tried to discern some meaningful pattern. The moon flickered through the treetops, its green goblin glow transforming me into a local yokel. Big bugs burst in bright yellow globs against the windshield of the pickup truck, and though I didn’t want to admit it, not to Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches and certainly not to myself, I was actually having a good time, and when we hit a bump in the road I burst into a fit of sloppy laughter, loving the novelty of my pastoral adventure. 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 and hit the breaks.

“Here we are. Come on, Patch. Let’s get the fishin’ rods.”

The men understood the darkness and moved with confidence, but when I toppled out of the truck a pile of empty beer cans clattered to the ground around me.

Someone lit a cigarette. “You okay, Patch?”

“Sure. You’re good friends, both of you. You could have left me back at the cabin. Left me to my books.”

With every passing moment my words became more and more nonsensical. In a drunken dance I crushed beer cans under my boots and then stomped through the mud, stumbling over branches, banging my knees against trees, scraping my arms on thorns. I tried to navigate through the darkness by looking up to the stars but the thick canopy of leaves hid them from view. For a moment I felt trapped at the bottom of those terrible smokestacks back at the power plant 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 idea of a man gagged and hogtied seemed as farfetched as the idea of some mollycoddled college boy going fishing with a couple of scarred and limping good ol’ boys who for the better part of twenty years welded gigantic steel plates to boilers and then went back to a cabin in the woods where they drank until two in the morning.

Someone thrust a rod into my hand.

I said, “But what about whatshisname?”


I hiccupped. “You know. Old Crow.”

Mr. Peaches, his hot breath stinking of tobacco, leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “What’s wrong with you? You a nigger lover or somethin’? That jig’ll be just fine. Africans are 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. You understand that, don’t you?”

He spit on the ground and then walked down to the creek with Hollerin’ Bob. For what seemed like a very long time, I shuddered in the darkness and jumped at every snapping branch. Wild turkeys roamed these woods, 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. Then, blind as a mole, I felt 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, saw my copy of Ulysses still on the floor, its dog-eared pages embossed with footprints.

“Don’t worry, Old Crow,” I said heroically, “I’m coming, buddy.”

Judging from the way Hollerin’ Bob had been driving that day, I thought it was a distinct possibility that Old Crow might be dead, his skull cracked open with the force of a sudden turn, but when I lifted the tarp he came instantly to life, his eyes rolling around in his head like two bright red marbles, his legs thrashing. After pulling the tape off his

mouth, he gasped and said, “Hurry now, untie my hands.”

I laughed. “Musta been a heck of a ride back here.”

I put the flashlight down and worked slowly, methodically, picking at the tape with my jagged nails, and when I managed to get his hands free, he sat up, rubbed his wrists, and then, without even looking at me, lashed out and struck my jaw with a clenched fist.

I fell backwards, my head knocking against the tailgate. Dazed, I watched as Old Crow yanked the tape off his ankles. He stood up, breathed deeply, and delivered a swift, solid kick to my side with one of his steel-toed boots. My ribs felt like they’d been crushed into a fine powder. I couldn’t breathe. I panted, gasped, tried to scream for help, curse him, threaten him, but I slumped over and groveled like a dog that’s been beaten and bruised.

“Motherfucker,” he rasped. “Don’t try to follow me or you’ll get more of the same, understand?”

When I didn’t answer he grabbed a fistful of my hair and slammed my head against the bed of the truck.

“You just keep your mouth shut, hear?”

Still moaning in pain, I watched Old Crow disappear into the darkness. I’d never been punched before, not like that at least. The schoolyard had its share of dangers but small boys were incapable of pummeling each other so badly.

When I was certain he was gone I pulled the tarp over my face. It stank of sweat under there but I didn’t care. I only wanted to sleep. I closed my eyes and listened to the muddy creek twisting and turning its way through the hills, and as my mind began to fade I heard Hollerin’ Bob and Mr. Peaches laughing and knew that it was only a matter of time before they discovered my treachery, my inexcusable betrayal. I could only hope that, despite the darkness, they had the good sense to check under the tarp before racing back to the cabin.

Tomorrow was payday, and if I didn’t blow it all at the bar on beer and whiskey and cigarettes I would have just enough money to make my first payment on next semester’s tuition; I would, with luck, return to my books, to James Joyce and the professors who disguised their bewilderment more ably than the students; I would go back to my apartment and my big beautiful bags of dope and my obsessive viewing of Kubrick’s hallucinatory visions of the infinite; all of this would happen, had to happen, the alternative was too nightmarish to contemplate, but just before drifting off to sleep I wondered whether or not Old Crow would return and thrust a knife into my eye, gouging out my already flickering and hissing neo-cortex, and I wondered, as oblivion closed in around me, if I was in fact the protagonist of this story or simply a minor character who appeared but briefly in one episode in the ongoing adventures of another man.


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