Tobin Terry  

Six Rounds on Midnight Shift

At Akron Thermal, a chemical delivery truck pulls in the drive. I give the driver my dollar tour. It’s different than the million dollar tour the bosses give to investors. Instead of just showing him the front, the spit shined aluminum panels that veil rotten and unstable chemical tanks, the good side of the building with trailer offices and new computers, I take him into the plant. I pull back the twenty foot curtains and tell him, “Here’s the dungeon.”

We walk through the curtains and I can see the surprise on his face. He looks up at the holes in the ceiling. We snake through piles of rusted scraps and cross a platform with no handrail past the boiler. I tell the driver not to look down. The windows are broken, and airborne coal dust glistens like snow in the fading beams of light. “Those tarps,” I say, pointing to a corner of the plant, “they cover the asbestos. Try not to kick them around.” The driver doesn’t speak.

I take him to the back where cockroaches roam on great plains of pigeon feathers. The back door opens up to a panorama of desolation. Corroded doors frame the sunset, purple and yellow like a bruise over cracked, weed laden concrete. Rusty barrels rot next to prehistoric equipment we haven’t used in years, and the cold muscles in past steam pipes like an unwanted relative. This is how Akron Thermal heats the city and surrounding area.

“You can leave through here when you’re done.”

I walk into the panel room and Paul, the kid who got the job because his dad runs the place, is smiling. Today is his twenty-first birthday. Ken, the guy I call “ol’ timer” who’s younger than me, asks where I came in from. I tell him, the south end, from the boiler room. He says, “Did you hear anyone shooting?”

“Shooting? No.”

Paul is smiling. He gets up and runs out to his truck. He comes back in with a big, I mean big, Smith & Wesson gun case. Inside is a brand new Smith & Wesson 500 Magnum revolver. Eight and a third inch barrel. The shells as wide as my finger and smells like oil. Thirteen-hundred dollar gun. Paul makes eight bucks an hour.

“We were shooting out back, behind the boiler,” Paul says.

“Loudest boom you’ll ever hear,” Ken says.

“I didn’t hear it,” I say.

I have to go downtown to the new “fun park” and check on the pump house. On Main Street there’s a zoo of college kids escaping from the bars into the streets and cops arresting some here and there. Cop cars are parked all along the street. College kids wearing shorts and hoodies hang off of light posts. I think about how nice it would be to have somebody pay for me to do that.

It takes a half hour to wade through them.

At the fun park there’s a new pile of human shit in front of the gauge. There is an AIDS pamphlet stuck in it. I wonder if the mayor knows this guy’s been shitting on his fun park. He’s got a right, I suppose. He’s been shitting here a whole year now.

Ken calls me on the radio. “Hey Georgie, where are you?”

I hate it when people call me Georgie. “Does it matter?” I respond, because I know it doesn’t.

“You have a ladder around you?”

I look around. There’s a ten foot ladder propped up against the pump house. “Yep.”

“Great. Do me a favor and bring that back to the control room.”

“Will do.” I don’t bother to tell him that I’m downtown.

I load the ladder into the company truck, drive to Taco Bell, and order two burritos. A man taps on my passenger window. “Hey, man. Got a quarter?”

“Beat it,” I say.

He knocks again. “Hey, man.”

“I said, beat it.” The man leaves.

Ken calls me again on the radio, “Hey Georgie, what’s the ETA on that ladder?”

“I’m on my way.”

When I get back, Paul is up on the belt poking the chute with a metal rod. They didn’t need the ladder after all. I take a seat by Ken in the control room next to the space heater. Everything is covered in dust, and the water cooler is crusted at the tap. A pigeon lands on the window sill. “I hate those fucking birds,” I say.

Ken says that rich people call them “squab.” They’re considered a delicacy. “Rich people will eat anything,” I say. Ken says he wouldn’t know. He tells me he’s on his third marriage. His first wife left him with two kids. The oldest was six. His second wife had two kids then died of cancer. His third wife hates kids.

Paul is back, still holding on to his gun like his first girlfriend. I wonder, if he wasn’t, would I take it? He walks over with his new gun and shows it off. “Want to shoot it?” He says. The shiny steel of the gun looks fake in here, out of place, too shiny. I decline. “Shoot yourself,” Paul says.

“You mean suit yourself,” I say.

“That’s what I said,” Paul says, then walks out of the control room and fires off six rounds into the rusty barrels.

There’s the sound of a ricochet and then intense hissing followed by screams. A pressure alarm lets out hurried piercing beeps and my heart mimics the tempo. Ken and I get out of our chairs and go outside. “What the hell was that?”

Paul says, “I don’t know. We’re here, there’s nobody back there.”

I remember the driver and start off for the boiler. I hear Ken ask, “Which way were you shooting?” but I just keep going. I know it doesn’t matter which way.

When I get near the boiler, I hear the intensity of sound and feel a rapid release of heat. Below an orange lamp is a pipe of leaking superheated steam. I see the truck driver on the ground, his pants melted through to the bone of his legs. His top half claws wildly at the dirt, hands bloody and straining. He reaches for his legs and the skin liquefies off of his fingers like a burning marshmallow. Without really thinking about it, I rush for the driver, but Ken tackles me and says it’s not safe, we can’t see the steam.

“To hell with safe,” I tell him. “The whole goddamn place isn’t safe.”

I gather myself and reach for the unburned parts of the driver. He’s in shock now, and though his eyes are wide open, he’s not saying anything. I drag his body out from under the pipe, leaving a trail of melted blue jeans. His legs are as black as night.

Ken’s putting all of his weight into shutting the valve to the pipe. When he finally gets it closed, he kneels down next to the driver and me. Ken says Paul is calling an ambulance. The driver seems to have forgotten his hands and legs are burned off and wants to know what’s going on. I tell him it doesn’t matter, just relax. He wants to know why he can’t feel his legs.

Paul comes running over and stops ten feet from us. I can see the dumb look on his face. I stand up, walk over to him, and punch him square in the nose harder than I ever hit anybody in my life. I feel the whole weight of the place behind it. The gravity of the situation, the thickness of burned skin, pigeon feathers and coal, all balled up into one punch.

“Son of a bitch,” Ken says, “the boy didn’t do it on purpose, Georgie.”

The driver shuts his eyes. Ken takes me and Paul aside, Paul’s nose bleeding all over the place and his eyes are turning black. He’s crying. “Goddamn it, you two. We need to start thinking straight. Paul, you got to gather yourself up and get the hell out of here. Say you got in a bar fight or something. We’ll say you went to lunch and weren’t here.” Ken turns to me, tells me we’re all in this together. If anyone finds out we were letting Paul shoot that gun we’ll all be through. Say it was a freak accident. The pipe burst because it was put together with bubble gum and bobby pins.

Paul looks at me for approval. “Shoot yourself,” I say. Paul does as he’s told and leaves. The ambulance shows up. The paramedics take over and rush the driver away, sirens blaring.

The sun is starting to show on the horizon. There’re incident reports to fill out. I tell Ken I’m taking my break, we’ll let the morning shift deal with the mess. I sit on top of the plant and smoke a cigarette. The company was having a guy come in at noon to roast a pig in celebration of our safety record. Probably won’t now. It doesn’t matter. I have no appetite for a pig glazed in coal dust.

  Copyright © 2013 Pemmican Press and the author/artist represented.