Baird Harper’s fiction has appeared or will soon appear in Glimmer Train Stories, Tin House, Prairie Schooner, The Chicago Tribune, Mid-American Review, Another Chicago Magazine, CutBank, and Printers Row Journal. His stories have been anthologized in Best New American Voices 2009 and 2010 and 40 Years of CutBank and have won the 2010 Nelson Algren Award and the 2009 James Jones Fiction Contest. Living in Oak Park, Illinois, with his wife, Anastasia, and their two kids, he teaches writing at Loyola University and The University of Chicago.
1st place - 2014 Raymond Carver Contest
Legend had it, if you left your truck running in the alley behind the Thunderbird Motel, laid a ten-dollar bill on the front desk, and asked the clerk for a cherry donut, a woman would appear and take you to her room. The first time we heard of this, we were too young to understand what a ten-dollar girl would give you for the money. But with time, things clarified, and the legend, apparently adjusting for inflation, now promised the same pleasures for a twenty. This connection to the laws of monetary flux leant the story a shred of the possible. It must be, we thought, or at least could be, real.
“Why not just believe it,” Cy asked us, “and leave it at that?” He was uncommonly smart, so we gave his question honest pause. “Do not touch the hem of mystery,” he warned, but now we were lost for his allusions. And besides, he’d lost a bet, and so he had no choice but to go put this cherry donut rumor to rest.
This was a Friday, the start of lunch hour in the MustardWorks cafeteria. While the rest of us spilled soggy lunches onto company tables, Cy zipped his coat and readied to leave. “Okay, fine,” he said. “But there’s no fun in actually knowing.”
Cyrus Fence was a college kid not in college, a valedictorian with a lunch pail. He lived in a big dying house outside town with his older sister, Min. They were, in a way, our own living legends—Min who’d starred in a series of toothpaste commercials (“Just shut up and kiss me you fool!”) before finally coming home from California, and Cy with his uncanny musical talent, his perfect SAT scores, his incredible patience with the teachers back in school. Most astounding of all, though, was the familiar yellow jumpsuit he wore to work every day, as if he were just like the rest of us.
Through the windows, we watched him peel off that suit in the parking lot, get in his truck, and rumble away. In his absence, we all felt a little more the gravity of that aging town and its single, inexorable employer, and so ate our sandwiches in silence until the back-to-work whistle blew.
“Back to goddamn work,” said a foreman, and we snapped out of our trances into the reality that we were probably lucky there was any work to get back to.
. . .
Imagine a smokestack so big you could drive a car around the rim at the top. Now imagine three of them, great brick tines spearing the sky over Tallawanda County. Except for the cafeteria, the whole plant lay underground, so we worked in the basement and in the lower-basement. There was a floor below that too, but sub-level three had been off limits, except for penalty chores, ever since someone punctured a barrel of accelerant with the tusks of a forklift. Some of the really old guys who’ve been around since the plant opened speak of secret levels below sub-three, but no one’s falling for that. Supposedly there’s a similar building buried deep beneath Maryland with eleven basements from which the president can control the silos. But again, this information comes from the old turds who’re full of it.
Our plant had narrow steel hallways and those round submarine doors with the wheel attached. The foremen acted like those doors were a novelty just for our enjoyment, but everyone knew, ever since the Lincolnville fire, that they were really for sealing off the doomed.
All we did was manufacture mustard, but we liked it. We liked the company-sponsored softball league and we liked how the plant kept the town afloat. The inspectors didn’t understand about small towns. All they saw were the checkboxes on their clipboards. Does workspace have proper ventilation? No. … Sprinklers? No. … Fire exits? No. But we looked on those sheets, and nowhere did it ask, Will this town survive if I check too many boxes?
So, we gave the inspectors a lousy time. We said the cancer spike was due to something else, our flammable river perhaps, or the landfill that smelled too close on windy days. Homerun days, we called them. We all played softball together after work on Wednesdays, on a nice green field behind the stacks where, when you could smell the garbage, it meant the wind was blowing out. This was our living and what we lived for—a warning-track fly carried over the wall by a benevolent, tumorous breeze.
But of course, the landfill wasn’t really to blame, so we bullied the inspectors, gave them stiff shoulders in the hallway, left dry-erase threats on our closet doors. That’s what we called our workspaces—closets—and everyone had his own. Five feet wide by seven long, with a ceiling full of vents that didn’t blow. Instead of fresh air, each room had a repurposed Nam-era gas mask, and the yellow vapor released by our work was called, naturally, mustard gas.
At night, we dreamed of this yellow fog. Our corridor warden said it gave his dreamself kidney stones. He’d wake up and his urethra would actually ache. “No joke,” he’d say, smirking.
When the vapor dissipated, we ran the treated mustard seeds through a pulverizer with a hand crank. Nothing electric could enter the closet, ever. There’s a story about a guy who snuck his beeper into the Lincolnville plant because his wife was nine months pregnant, and the spark started a fire in his wing which burned for weeks. When it finally fizzled, all that was left of him was an enormous diamond forged of his skull.
This story, we think, is actually true. The old guys tell it, but reluctantly, with none of the usual eye gleam, too much pause-and-swallow. You can see it in their furrowed brows, as they describe the Lincolnville Beeper Fire, that somewhere a child grows up fatherless.
. . .
The sirens had been sounding throughout the afternoon, off again thank Christ, and then back on, like some asshole’s spastic car alarm. Early in the investigation, management used the sirens to alert us when the inspectors were coming down into a given sector. One blast meant gloves mandatory, two meant go find a hazmat suit or take a break if there aren’t any left. There was something for three alarms too, but it got confusing after a while, and eventually no one bothered to do anything.
At four-thirty, they sounded again, and some of us, sick of the noise, decided to cut out early. We got together in the southeast hallway of sub-two and talked tough until we were a whole posse agreeing loudly that we’d worked long enough already, especially for a Friday.
When one of the foremen saw us stride into the cafeteria, he started in with the rhetorical insults, wanting to know if we were stupid or something, if our ears worked, if we were so infantile as to be too illiterate to read the latest emergency alert memo.
And it’s true, we were young, still learning the job we’d one day die in. We liked to complain about being stuck in the shittiest wing in the plant while secretly hoping never to graduate, never to get fat and cancerous like all the old pricks in northwest-one with its robotic vending machines and sparkling johns. But as our eyes rolled, the foreman stiffened with righteousness. “This isn’t some drill, you little shits. Sub-three is on fire, and someone’s down there.”
. . .
When it’s ambiguous like that—just “someone”—your worries can be as vague. It must’ve been the key to our courage, being ignorant to the real concerns of the world. What was it Cy had said? Do not touch the hem of Mystery? He was book smart, sure, but he’d seen some things too. When his parents died, he went to California while his sister filmed the last toothpaste commercial, returning later in the summer with a bitter take on the outside world. “Hollywood isn’t what you wish,” he sometimes said to us. “I’m never leaving Tallawanda County again.”
With the foremen botching head counts and misreading timesheets, it took a while before someone asked, “Where’s the boy genius?” But of course we knew Cy was both unaccounted for and safe, that he was probably just now coming back down Route Forty with the final verdict on the existence of the cherry donut prostitute. But, as we searched the empty road, our eyes wandered into the parking lot to find, at the end of row E, Cy’s red pickup.
Our corridor warden’s face whitened. “You mean the skinny kid?” he asked. “I gave him scrub duty down in sub-three. He was late coming back from lunch. Really late.” He looked around frantically as we crowded in. “Wait, this is my fault?” he asked. “I killed him?”
A bunch of us demanded to go back in—didn’t some kind of company motto demand it? weren’t the asbestos suits still lying around somewhere?—but of course the doom doors were on autolock, and company brass was already in a chopper coming down from Cleveland. Grief mitigators had been dispatched from Lincolnville.
“There’s nothing to do right now,” said the plant manager, “but go home, go to church, go to the bar.”
And the old fuckers probably did go home, to squeeze their babies, to show their wives how alive and kicking they still were, and maybe a few others found a pew to pray in. But the rest of us got in our trucks and went to O’Leary’s for the real vigil.
“Maybe Cy’s in an outer corridor,” someone said. “Locked in, but safe.”
“Maybe there’s not even really a fire,” said another. “Did you see smoke? I didn’t see any smoke. I bet he’s just twiddling his thumbs down there.”
We liked this image of Cy waiting for the world to catch up. But then the bartender turned on the TV to shaky chopper footage of orange smoke pouring from the vents on the west side of the plant, blue flames jetting from the smokestacks.
We fell quiet. A few guys genuflected, finished their beers, and ran off to pastors or parents, to tell their girlfriends they understood, finally, how fragile life can be. On the TV, the cafeteria windows evaporated and a wide bank of fire blew the roof off. A sound like thunder rolled through the pub. The salad bar shuddered. Its sneeze guard fell to the floor and shattered. The pinball machine went wild.
“Maybe we’re only meant to think he’s down there,” someone said to break the silence. “Maybe Cy’s already living under an assumed name, lounging on some beach in…” The voice trailed off, losing energy to hope. The TV went to commercial. We dipped silently to our drinks.
. . .
Supposedly the skull of the man lost in the Lincolnville fire was forged into a two-hundred-karat diamond that the shareholders keep in a vault under the Cuyahoga River. A cautionary amulet, some believe. A down payment on legal fees, according to others, should such a thing ever happen again. But in those moments, our minds grasped at the smaller tragedies—the leather coats still in our lockers, the favorite work boots, the old photos of us with our grandfathers on the bank of Turpentine Creek—until the TV returned from commercial, exploding again with the inescapable truth that our friend, and our town, were probably already dead.
. . .
If only we could disprove one of those facts, then the other might somehow fall in line. So we tipped back the last of our beers and left O’Leary’s, a caravan of American-mades rolling Route Forty north, west on Birdshot Road, left at the largemouth mail-bass. As we bumped up that long dirt driveway, our minds swirled with memories—of Cy’s mother’s cigarette making lace in the kitchen air, of his father cursing in the tool shed. They both died of the cancer Mr. Fence brought home from the plant, and for three years now, Cy and Min had lived in the house alone, making ends meet in ways none of us could quite figure. Maybe Min was selling Tupperware on the side. Maybe Cy was counting cards on the riverboat. And maybe, just maybe, we’d catch the two of them inside still packing their bags, ready to make for a new life in Mexico.
And as we gathered on the porch, it occurred to us that we could all be as smart. The plant was dead and the town would soon follow, and if we all wanted to be as bright as Cyrus Fence for just one day, we could make that disaster into our own escape. Imagine it, a whole town slipping out of bed in the middle of the night, throwing favorite belt buckles and heirloom brooches into the ashes and stealing off to parts unknown, tax-free for life.
No one answered our knock, so we let ourselves in with the key beneath the mat and rushed through the house calling for Cy, for sweet blond Min. All our lives we’d been dreaming our way into the locked bedroom of that toothpaste starlet, the red-lipped sister with the big heart puffing her chest. But as we came up the stairs, our yearning became confused. Did we really want her to be there? How to explain about her brother and still enjoy the hug she might collapsingly offer? We loved Min exactly this way. Exactly the way that makes young men long for a simpler world, one they can explain intelligently to a girl, a world so rudimentary that a girl wouldn’t require explanation at all—just shut up and kiss me you fool!
With the rest of the house cleared, we gathered at her bedroom door, licking our teeth and knocking down cowlicks. Two kicks and the bolt ripped through the jamb, splinters settling across her pink duvet, bras hanging from the bedpost. But no Min.
In the corner cage, by the open window, her pet canary lay on the newsprint. On the horizon beyond, the factory stacks shuddered and collapsed. A dark orange cloud rose and mushroomed. On came the tornado sirens.
. . .
Our numbers shrank again, but a few of us stayed behind in that empty house to figure what next. While others fled the county, we assembled in the kitchen, trying to think where else Cy could be. And then the obvious thought came: go back to the start of it all.
So we halved Min’s C-cups and tied them over our mouths, stepped out into the dimming afternoon, and headed back to town. To keep out the sirens, we turned on the radio, but all the stations had gone off the air. For two in the back seat, this was an omen too many, and they got out on the roadside to hitch in the opposite direction. The last of us found a mixtape in the glove compartment and pressed on, until, just outside of town, another thunderous explosion made the man in shotgun nervous. He noted the way paint was melting off a billboard, how all the cows had fallen over in a pasture. “So either turn around now,” he said, “or let me out here.”
But we were not turning around. Or rather, I was not turning around. It was just me now, alone, driving into my hometown, abandoned and dark, a damp yellow slurry falling from the sky. My name is Allen Bell, by the way. It was just me now, in my truck, turning left at the empty stoplight, past the abandoned diner, and into the alley behind the Thunderbird Motel.
. . .
He was my best friend, Cy was, and I was his. I knew his first dog and his middle name, and we once cut open our palms and traded blood on the bank of Turpentine Creek. I’d eaten his mother’s homemade ice cream, and I’d seen the way his smarts dried up when his father got angry. Cy was everybody’s favorite, but he was my best friend and if he was dead, then fine, he was dead, but I needed to understand his final errand.
I entered the motel’s back door, through a storage room full of torn linens and broken TV remotes, into the empty front office. Orange fog rolled down the street. A gray tabby cat ran out to where a robin had fallen from the sky and then lay down beside it. Another distant explosion made the cabinet full of room keys shiver.
Going door to door, each guest room was empty, some clean and unoccupied, others hastily deserted—an untouched takeout burger, a TV blaring porno for no one’s amusement. And then, before I could get the key in the knob of the last door, it opened for me, and there was a beautiful blond woman in a silk robe.
I tore her bra from my face. “Min? You?”
She looked exhausted by my surprise. “What can I say, Allen? Gotta pay the mortgage.”
“Something’s happened,” I told her, “to Cy.”
“I know.” She turned, letting me into the room, and I could see now the tears on her cheeks. I had the feeling I’d interrupted something, so I walked around the room making sure there wasn’t anyone else inside.
“What are you doing here, Min?”
She dropped to the edge of the bed. “Nobody was buying Tupperware.”
“I mean, why are you still here?” I looked around again. It felt as if someone was there and I simply couldn’t see him. “Didn’t you hear the sirens?”
“My brother came here today.” She gazed despairingly out the open door. Across the street, dead locusts rained from an elm tree. “It isn’t always me, you know. There’s another girl too, but she was sick today, and…”
“You had to pay the mortgage?”
She nodded absently. “It’s not really so horrible. It’s almost like acting, except—”
“Let’s talk about it on the way.”
Her eyes traveled the room, the scrunched socks and crumpled cans, the half-eaten fry basket left by that morning’s john, the muted TV showing MustardWorks’ CEO behind a podium, the next room’s porn-grunts filling his mouth.
. . .
The wipers threw off yellow slush as we fled town, not a car on the road. On Route Forty, the disaster clarified in the rearview into a great poisonous curtain in the sky. Min rode shotgun, half-catatonic, her temple thumping the window.
“I guess the town’s dead too,” she sighed.
“Maybe,” I said. “But I’ve heard Lincolnville’s making a comeback.”
A simple question, but I had no idea, and this startled me in a way I cannot express, except to say that I wanted to be part of a group again. I wanted to be one small mind in a posse of stupid young men who worked and drank and played softball, men who, in the face of absurd personal and community tragedy, could still locate a pocket of their brains consumed by the possibility that the wet dream of their youth might be on the other side of that door, naked on a pink duvet. But the other guys were gone and Min Fence was a zombie and my best friend’s head was ossifying into a gemstone that’d be carried off by the lawyers rather than the labor. Lincolnville. Had it ever been more than some story cooked up by the old fuckers in northwest-one? Was it possible that, somewhere else, some ancient precancerous mustard plant jerk was getting his jollies telling the new guys about the small-town genius still burning away in Millville? Where was Millville?
. . .
Seven miles north of town, we saw familiar trucks parked at the entrance to the county fairgrounds. Some of the other guys from southeast-sub-two were milling around tying bandanas over their faces, rubbing dirt into their palms. When they saw us pull up, they jumped and hooted, and I was carried down from the cab like some kind of hero.
“We were coming to get you!” said the man formerly riding shotgun.
“We weren’t going to let you die,” said another who’d fled after the smokestacks fell.
Did I blame them for disappearing? No. I blamed them for showing up again, for not faking their own deaths too.
“What do you mean ‘too’?” asked a man I hadn’t seen since O’Leary’s.
“Well,” I said, “why don’t you ask Min?”
But they were afraid to approach her, the widowed sister in shotgun with the thousand-mile stare.
“She’s just acting,” I whispered. “Cy’s fine. I mean he’s gone forever, but he’s safe, somewhere.”
“Mexico?” someone asked.
“Yep,” I said. “Or Canada probably.”
“Sure,” I said. “But who knows.”
“Well, is it Mexico or Canada?”
I shook my head. I didn’t even know what I was saying. “You think he told me?”
They turned to Min again, but the grief on her face was too convincing, and I could see their minds already constructing a story they could live with anyway. A silver lining to the toxic cloud spreading over Tallawanda County.
“Allen,” said a guy who’d never even made it to O’Leary’s, “you’ve got to see this.” And finally I became annoyed. This man who’d been hiding in a pew while I’d been sucking death through Min Fence’s C-cups telling me to regard the swath of pollution from which I had just emerged.
“No, not that,” he said, taking my shoulders, turning me, urging me up a slope. “Look at this.” From the top of the hill, I could see the whole fairgrounds and the thousand people who were my neighbors and cousins and classmates, all of Millville made into a refugee camp. There were tents and trailers everywhere, people grilling from tailgates, familiar dogs playing in the horse paddock, a makeshift chapel in the show barn. I saw the old fuckers and the town wives, the girls we sometimes dated, the women we’d eventually marry, all of them, it seemed to me, awaiting a return. Allen Bell back from certain death with sweet blond Min at his side—the genius’s best friend, loyal as ever, and the sister, her reputation made immutable through tragedy—bearers of the town’s best legend yet.
. . .
And when the dead fire left no bones, the rumors rose and the town bought in. Cyrus Fence was the smartest person we’d ever known, so why not believe?
They say he runs a donut shop in the Canary Islands now, that he fixes up Thunderbirds at a garage down in Mexico, that he builds submarines in a government hangar eleven floors beneath Maryland. I’ve heard he robs banks in Canada or robs Canadians along the banks of the Turpentine, that he gives it all to a charity fighting our ubiquitous industrial cancer. He came back just once, they say, for the ribbon-cutting on the new plant, but no one saw him because he was actually in Cleveland cracking that vault, letting the Cuyahoga carry away the Lincolnville diamond.
This, we think, is actually true. How else could safety standards have risen so high if company brass still had their morbid endowment? There are plenty of hazmat suits now, and vents that blow, a fire escape for every wing. We come in a little late and leave a little early and the foremen never hand out scrub duty. Punishment is, in general, hard to come by. Unless you know the truth.
“Why not believe?” I ask Min whenever we get together. We get together often, though neither of us enjoys it. We sit in the cab of my truck, sealed away from all the talk. We lament the charade of his funeral, so much wink-and-nod among the mourners, the titter of wild conjecture—I hear he’s hiding out in California.
“California!” Min and I say, as if he has died all over again.
But he does live on, we eventually suppose, if not for the two of us. And then we sit in silence, parked at the smoldering edge of the old factory footprint, wondering if it’s not too late to throw into the ashes evidence that we were ever here.