Dell Kaniper

The Beam Yard

Dell Kaniper

Durky was a sacred cow, an old boy. He’d been a foreman since before your father, your cousin, were even born, let alone worked the mill. Hell, he’d always said, lazy-spitting, letting drips of chew further stain his yellowed beard. Hell, he had whiskers that’d worked the rollers longer.

Durky was a nice man, a kind soul, but he hadn’t gone easy. He could spot a gagged beam from way down and, no shitting, he’d stop the rollers, stop the line, and point out the man that’d let the twisted metal pass. It’s good for the boys, he’d always said, one hand buried under his two-bowling-ball gut, it’s good they know the steel comes first. Gives ’em the fear of God. Keeps ’em honest, Durky had liked to say, rubbing his under-belly. I’d pull the whistle on my own mother, he’d say then rock back on his heels and laugh and laugh.

In ’67, at seventeen, Mike had started rolling. Just like with the other pinkies, Durky had trained him. He’d showed Mike the pressure lever, the hot metal, the one two—lever up, pedal down.

First day at shift change, Durky had said he knew Mikey’s father, Frank. He’d said Frank was a good one, an old boy. Said he and Mikey’s dad had met before Frank went to the refinery. Decades ago, when they’d both started the line. At second shift—careful, he’d warned Mikey, it gets in your nose. Then, even in the yard where you can feel the wind and see the river, all you’ll smell is steel. Damn metal, it’ll ruin you, Durky had said, cracking a smile, a thick finger tapping his bulbous, broken-veined nose.

When the rumors started, Durky denied them. He’d said the Japs don’t know how to say steel let alone make it for eight cents a day. He’d said not to worry, that Durky and Mikey and Frank, they were the steel’s old families. He’d said the unions would protect them. He’d said they’d be safe.

Durky didn’t understand why he’d had no warning before the mill closed. He was an old boy, a sacred cow. If anyone, he’d deserved to know.

Ogre

Dell Kaniper

Jason, I knew, was going to be the death of me. For two summers we played together, pretending that we were fast and strong. Sometimes I was invisible. Often he could fly. There were other kids in the neighborhood—my sister, his sister—but I was oblivious to them. I careened behind Jason, thinking his blond hair and lean build nicely contrasted my swarthy girth. When he jumped toward me, arms straight as Superman’s, I knew he agreed. Those were the good days: when we were husband and wife one morning, and heroes the next, when our devotion to each other was as fervent as our vow to protect the world.
Jason started school a year before I did, and in those nine months of classrooms and pizza lunches, everything changed. The first day of summer Jason brought other boys to the alley behind our houses. They wanted to play kickball; they didn’t care about pretend. She can be on your team, they said to Jason and pointed at me. As they turned to the outfield, they offered to take his sister. They said she looked kind of strong.
I bolted to my place in the lineup, hoping that Jason’s new, disagreeable friends would see how fast I was. Next time we played, I was sure they would fight over me. Jason would have to throw a few punches just to keep me for himself. From behind home plate I foresaw victory. The awkwardly large boy on the mound would pitch and I—far more agile than my carriage implied—would bound forward. My feet would collide with rubber, my dirty red sneakers smashing the already dented ball. The reverberation would pierce the sky, heralding my triumph to the baseline and the pitcher’s mound and the trees and the sky. A homerun—yes, a homerun—that’s how it would happen. That’s how the story would go.
The first pitch rolled crooked but I tried to kick it. My legs waltzed to the left and the ball skidded off the side of my foot. This, I told myself, was more than okay. It’s okay, I said to the other team so they would think I didn’t care. Looking back at Jason, I worried that he had lost faith in me. Perhaps he’d forgotten how many times my super powers had saved him. I could make myself invisible if I wanted. Maybe he didn’t remember that.
The second pitch came and went and this time I didn’t say anything. I needed to score—for pride. For love. I kept my eyes on the hulking ogre of a boy on the mound. He was blinding. In the midday sun his rampant orange curls melted into his skin, which could no longer be called ivory, or even rosy. It wasn’t anything but shiny, painful red. When he uncurled his arm to throw the ball, I saw the white lines hidden in his joints, light escaping from where his skin had been creased and protected. He was a dying star—a supernova. I wanted to warn Jason, to turn and say, look at the pitcher, look at your friend. That is a villain. If we don’t stop him, he will explode.

———

Later, in the hospital my mother said I screamed like an eagle. She said she could hear me even though she was vacuuming the house and was a garage and a full yard away. She said I sounded brave. My sister remarked how fast I had run the bases, and that I might have made it home if third hadn’t been slippery with mud. My dad reminded everyone that alleys were no place for kickball and that I was lucky to have only a broken leg.

———

A few weeks after that, when I was out of traction, out of the hospital, when my lower body was encased in plaster and I was trapped inside the house, Jason’s mother visited. She said she should have been watching us and was sorry about what happened. My mother said apologies weren’t necessary and kids always hurt themselves. It was a similar conversation to the one my mother had with everyone. Then she would bring them into the room where I was camped out with the TV and my toys and some books. The visitors, no matter who they were, usually said, what a strong girl I must be and when I healed I would be tough. The break was high enough on my leg, “a compound fracture,” my mother would say, that when they finally cast it, “after three weeks of traction,” she continued, they had to put both legs in plaster with a stick in between, “just to keep her aligned.” This was where my mother laughed. “She’s doing great,” she liked to tell people. Strong as a pyramid, she would say, pointing to the isosceles triangle that was my legs. Then she would explain the Velcro on my underwear. “Like a diaper?” the neighbors, or family, or friends would ask. “Yes, a diaper,” my mother would nod and agree.
But this time, Jason’s mother was visiting. Jason. My pretend husband and hero. Without hesitation I had a fought a villain on his behalf. Now my mother and his mother were casually sharing coffee. Soon they would approach me and then there would be no choice but death. After all, it wasn’t just love or friendship at stake. In two months I would start at the same school as Jason, and if he knew about the stick and the Velcro and the careful way that I had to be placed on the toilet, perched as gently as a crystal bird, if he knew that, then so would the ogre, so would the other boys. So would the entire school. I had to find a way to stop my mother—Morse code or telepathy. Maybe I could become invisible, drag myself to the kitchen, hit her on the head. I heard the squeal of wood on worn linoleum. Chairs pushed out and bodies leaned in, these were the sounds of the conversation shifting. I had been born daughter to a conspirator, a woman devoted to ruining me. My lungs seized, the air in my short panicked gasps no more than a tease. I punched my cast, lashing out at my papier-mâché shackles. I was a disgraced war god. A superhero humiliated by a rubber ball.
That night my mother claimed that she had never said anything to Jason’s mother about my underwear. She said my accusation was callous. That she might have made a pyramid joke or two, but she wouldn’t talk about family embarrassments with just anyone. Certainly not to Jason’s mother, Sharon, who, if you asked her, was barely better than trash. That woman, she said, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth, should have been watching you. She should have brought a casserole or offered to pay half the hospital bill. Sharon, she said to my father, told me she’s looking for a transfer; that the salaries and the schools are better in Iowa so Sharon’s hoping for that. We should pray for it, my mother said. That boy, she said, is no good. By next year he’ll be molesting Barbies or killing small animals. She nodded in my direction, there’s no reason for her to be there for that.

———

When I finally started school, a few weeks late due to my injury, Jason and his sister were gone. My father said Sharon had popped in one Sunday when the rest of us of were at church. He said she said goodbye and that she would call with their new address so Jason and I could be pen pals after I learned how to write. In school there was no talk of my underwear. My classmates were focused on my skinny, pale legs and the sound that, according to my sister, a bone makes when it cracks. Sometime, later that year, on my way to the bathroom, I saw the ogre. Next to fifth graders and under fluorescent lights, he looked small. In April, I think, something happened to him—he was caught picking his nose or pissing his pants. Whatever it was, it was mortifying, and he shrank more after that.

———

Years later, at Thanksgiving, I told the story of my broken leg. I compared the gravel in the alley to the crumb topping on the apple pie. I pointed to the cranberry sauce and talked about red hair. I broke the wishbone to illustrate how my leg snapped and then I used a wet napkin and a toothpick to show how it was cast. My mother chewed her food quietly as I mocked my juvenile delusions of grandeur. She sipped her wine while I melodramatically clutched my chest and explained how Jason made me feel. There was never a postcard, I said, not one, nothing to commemorate my first love, my first heartbreak, my only broken bone. After the laughter died and before the next story began, my mother spoke. Jimmy, she said. The scrawny neighbor boy—his name was Jimmy, not Jason. And he did write you, she said. Once. My mother slowly rose from the table, carrying her now ample frame with the seductive poise of a queen. I have the postcard somewhere, she said. I’ll find it after dinner. You can see it for yourself.