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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.
* * *
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.
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
Mr. Peaches didnt 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 aint 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 aint catfish that
can swallow a babys leg.
You wont 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. Dont
know why I
bother plantin anything.
Hollerin Bob slammed on the breaks. Wait here, he
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, dont worry, I think
the games almost over. Im pretty sure theyre 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.
Theyre only fucking with you, thats all, I tried
to assure him.
I waited for him to answer before I realized that he couldnt speak
with the brown packing tape wrapped around his mouth. Theyd 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
Bugs are pretty annoying, arent 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 wasnt my idea. I dropped the tarp
and casually walked back to the cab of the pickup truck.
That aint 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
Although I couldnt 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 Id 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 Id 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 Jamess 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?
Dont give me that shit. Your grades showed up at the house
Yes, yes they did. And do you know what? Im not paying one
more cent for you to sit around your dorm and bullshit with your buddies
and drink beer. Youre 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 Im 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 wholl let
you stay with them rent free. But you better prepare yourself for some
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 cant say that I entirely
adapted to my new environment. Id 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. Wheres 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, were 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 Id seen
on the job. He didnt 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.
Thats funny, I said. Im an English major,
used to be anyway, and Ive been trying to read Ulysses for like
a month now. I cant 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. Dont 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 whod
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 Id fallen out of a tree
or jumped off the roof of a garage or had a fistfight in some squalid
On the drive back to the cottage, Mr. Peaches grumbled, Goddamn
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 didnt 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 didnt
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. Lets 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. Youre 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, Whats wrong with you? You a nigger
lover or somethin? That jigll 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, dont 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
Dont worry, Old Crow, I said heroically, Im
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
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 theyd been crushed
into a fine powder. I couldnt breathe. I panted, gasped, tried
to scream for help, curse him, threaten him, but I slumped over and
groveled like a dog thats been beaten and bruised.
Motherfucker, he rasped. Dont try to follow
me or youll get more of the same, understand?
When I didnt 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.
Id 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 semesters 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 Kubricks 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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