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Short Fiction to 5000 Words

Mike Murray


Steel Workers by Weinold Reiss

There’s talk of our mill closing. By October, when fiscal ’74 kicks in, they’re saying three thousand of us from the plant could be on the street. The whole industry is heading into the toilet. I won’t be surprised if import fever causes mills to close all over the country by decade’s end.

This is what my head is swimming with on the way home after my shift, percolations I won’t drag into the house when I get there, just like I won’t tell Suli that I bruised my ribs today when a binding cable snapped and I had to dive to avoid an avalanche of galvanized pipe. I’m not going to burden my wife with rumors or injury reports when she has worse problems of her own.

As I swing our whistly ’68 Country Squire into the driveway, I nearly run over Cue, the neighborhood pest. The boy’s sitting cross-legged on the gravel, shoeless and wearing his customary red t-shirt. He doesn’t flinch except to wave when I stop and cut the engine. I grab my lunch box and the towel I use to protect the seat from my filth and crawl out. When I turn off the headlights, Cue is invisible. It’s not a starless or even a moonless night, but three healthy maples lining our drive, their leaves pattering in the mild breeze, prevent such light and often rain from penetrating this side of the house.

“Hey, Mr. Dobbs,” Cue whispers.

“Hey, Elroy,” I say.

“It’s not one of the Jetsons,” he says. “I’m Cue. Don’t tell them I’m here.”

“How about you hide somewhere safer—like up on the terrace.”

“Okay, Mr. Dobbs.” I hear his feet scraping the gravel.

“Thanks, Cue.”

I could have told him he should be in bed, at home, not playing freeze tag at midnight. That’s not how it works around here, though. Not for Cue, whose home isn’t much of one since his mother got sent away and his father lubricates as a result. Nor for the others who run and whoop around our generous, undulating lot and the rest of the neighborhood lawns day and night, kids who gravitate toward our space because we’ve got trees to climb, plentiful grass to play on, and far too many snacks—plus my wife loves that they run wild here. Hey, it’s summer. They’re not murdering anyone or setting fire to the garage. Still, the constant clamor and underfooting wears on me more each day. I wish they’d give us a break. My ears, which are tormented enough at the mill, crave silence, and Suli—dear, suffering Suli—could use the sleep.

Reaching the front porch, my legs don’t want to climb the steps. My body gets tired after these evening shifts, sure, but this feels like I’m wearing lead socks. Stupid. I’m forty-five, not ninety. I take a deep breath and conquer the wooden stairs. I hope no one hears me grunt.

I slide off my work boots and nudge them toward the rubber rain mat, which holds more sneakers and flip-flops than my family has feet. The porch bulb, normally guiding my temporary return between jobs, is off. Or burnt out—like I feel.

The mercury glow of a neighbor’s garage light reveals young bodies on the glider, on the chaise, and on layered blankets spread across the plank floor. Not a snore among them. Most are shirtless, but one’s wearing a Little League jersey—must be my son Ty’s crew. They’re a few years younger than the teenaged freeze tag mob—who are still going strong—and aren’t as keen on staying up past curfew. I’ve missed nearly all of Ty’s games this season. Wonder who won.

Inside—surprise—is more of the same. I tiptoe through the living room not so much to be silent as to avoid crushing necks or ribs or worse. Flickers from a black-and-white sci-fi movie facilitate my passage. At the end of the obstacle course, I take the clicker from the arm of the recliner, upon which a teenage girl is sleeping—I think it’s Zell, one of my younger daughter’s friends. I turn off the set.

“Hey,” comes a voice from under a sheet somewhere in the room.

“Sorry,” I whisper blindly. I turn the TV back on and lower the volume. Earth vs The Flying Saucers, a ’56 B-movie staple, reappears during a climactic scene. “Who’s there?”

“Me,” says Mason, our nine-year-old.

“Hey, son. Haven’t you seen this a dozen times already?”

“It’s good.”

“Yeah it is,” I say, “unless you’re in one of the alien ships those soldiers are zapping.” I watch a moment, feel like plopping down for the night myself. A sleek-looking bubble disc wobbles into the Capitol Dome and explodes. Pretty cool effects for like seventeen years back. “Don’t stay up too late.”

“That’s what Mom said, too.”

“Yet here you are.”

“I don’t want to miss anything,” Mason says.

My throat closes. Maybe he means the movie marathon, maybe he means his mother.

“You do what you want,” I say.

The kitchen is dark except for the glowing orange indicators from the coffeemaker, crockpot, and dishwasher, which is on the dry cycle. We must have fed the whole lot again. A meaty aroma is infused with the odor of fresh paint. I’m simultaneously hungry and nauseous. Someone’s up to something. Do I want to find out what? With four kids there’s too much going on around here any given day to nose into every detail. Who has the energy? Not me. Not tonight. And certainly not Suli. Actually, despite being ill and, this week, mostly bedridden, she still runs this place. Assigns chores, schedules our recreation, listens, counsels, and smiles. All the time she smiles—at least when we’re looking. She wants no one to witness her suffering. Not even me. I have to admit, I don’t fight her on it like I did a few months ago when she was surprise-diagnosed. We talked about it a lot, the cancer, the implications when doctors told us how advanced it was. Now, she keeps the worst of it to herself, and I don’t mind. At least, that’s what I tell myself. It’s easier not to face it than to break the way I want to. Suli makes it easy to pretend it’s not as bad as it is. That we’re not as terrified as we really are.

Every time I come down to the basement I want to move. Yeah, it’s no different than most basements. The cement floor’s damp with trickly streams seeping from the walls toward the drains on the wettest days. Spider webs populate exposed rafters. The spartan toilet, which gets a fair amount of use by the hardiest and least creature-averse among us, is corroded and leaky, just like it was when I grew up here, and just like it probably was when my dad and his young siblings braved the battered seat and the mysterious slithery monsters that lurked above, behind, and beneath.

Three girls wearing headphones are painting the far wall lime green, each singing a different song. They’re also doing a number on the dropcloth-less floor, but down here no one’s awarding style points. I recognize the backs of the heads of two of them, one being Sheila, our fifteen-year-old, the other her best friend, who is also named Shiela but with the vowels reversed. The third has bright red hair with banded sprigs bursting from the top and one side. All three are wearing cuffed jean shorts and white tees with fresh lime green accents. On the floor, an open box of pizza sits perilously close to the roller tray. I count a dozen empty cans of Tab.

It occurs to me that their ages add up to mine, that if you strung their lives end to end, from birth until now, counting all they’ve experienced as infants, toddlers, grade schoolers, and now teens, you would reach me. I don’t know what that means other than I’m suddenly aware of it and feel the linear distance separating us—separating me from all of our kids.

“Hey, Daddy,” my daughter says, cocking one end of her headphones to the side. “Shiela found buckets in their shed.”

Her friends smile when they notice me and reload, trilling “Good evening, Mr. Dobbs” in unison like it’s a sitcom catchphrase.

“This place could use some neon,” I say, forcing a smile. Suli says it’s important to convey happiness no matter what you feel inside.

“We found an old loveseat by the curb today. This is going to be our party room.”

I appreciate their ambition. I’ve painted these walls before myself, primarily to hide black mold. I’ve tried white, sky blue, yellow, and white once more, which is what they are now. I’ve sanded and scrubbed and primed and triple-coated. The result is always the same. Three months later the walls are peeling and the basement looks toxic yet again.

“I need to shower,” I say.

“You won’t bother us,” my Sheila says.

“Har har,” I say.

With her prompting, the girls set their rollers on the tray, gather the pizza and their open sodas, and run upstairs.

While our lone bathroom two stories up is being renovated to make it more Suli-friendly, I rigged up a temporary shower here in the corner by the washer and dryer where there’s a floor drain. A flexible rubber hose runs from the stationary tub to a hook in the rafters. The dangling end of the hose has a sunflower showerhead that pathetically dribbles rather than sprays. You don’t want too much lather because it would take hours to rinse off all the soap and shampoo. The most you can hope for is a fresh-enough sensation.

A couple of beach towels draped on nails offers privacy, and a loose square of plywood gives us something level to stand on. Both sides of that have grown slimy from soap and body scum, so getting clean is a balancing act as well as a test of patience. Although it’s humid outside and well into the eighties, a draft worms around the towels and chills me. I step out to adjust the faucet, which is just beyond reach from within the makeshift stall. As I stand here naked, I see something lurking outside the hinged, ground-level window above the stationary tub. When I peer closer, it moves.

“Don’t tell them I’m here, Mr. Dobbs,” Cue whispers from the shadowy window well.

I jump back and yank down one of the towels to wrap myself with. “Jesus. How about letting me finish here, Cue?” I say. “Privately.”

“I found the best spot,” he says.

“I bear witness to that fact. Now move, please.”

“Yes sir.”

I hear the rustling of leaves, twigs, and candy wrappers as Cue slides out of the well and returns to the yard. My kids are good about including anyone who shows up to play here, even outside of their respective age parameters, but they don’t like Cue. While he’s energetically upbeat, his visual appearance can take some getting used to. His head is an oblate sphere crowned with short brown curls that begin far north of his stick-out ears. Dark, pellet-ish eyes do him no favors. He lives three blocks down and is ever-present, even around mealtimes and on holidays. He wants to be involved in everything and has even followed us into our nearby church. My kids and their friends long ago grew tired of his thrusting himself into every activity, even to the point of telling him so—repeatedly. Cue is not easily deterred. Whatever they’re dishing his way isn’t as bad as what he experiences inside his own home, Suli says. It’s a disappointment to her that the boy isn’t made to feel welcome here. I’m with the kids on this, though. I don’t like having him around. He’s just too much.

I finish my shower self-consciously and pluck a fresh shirt, a pair of underwear and some socks from the fat bundle in the dryer. My chocolate brown jumpsuit, hanging on a hook under the steps along with jackets and scarves and winter coats, barely passes the sniff test. If I were going to be mingling with customers instead of muscling boxes in the warehouse, I might care more. A little cologne will get me through the shift.

My dinner plate is waiting for me on the kitchen counter when I ascend the steps. Beef stroganoff with wide flat noodles from the crock and nuked broccoli. Sheila’s doing, God bless her. She’s really stepped up these couple of months, often unprompted. It smells delicious and rids my stomach of the pizza craving that had overtaken me. The chocolate milk is a nice touch. What I really want is a beer.

I carry my plate to the living room and eat while leaning against the wall. Must be planetary catastrophe theme night, as Earth vs the Spider is playing now. Mason’s out. He shares the couch heel to heel with one of his young friends whose face I don’t recognize in the dim. Popcorn kernels and chip crumbs decorate the cushions as they do the carpet and pillows among the frozen, gap-jawed bodies on the floor. Children can look dead when they sleep this deeply, their bodies in impossible contortions—like they’ve been gassed and deboned.

Between the food and the pseudo-shower, I’m catching my second wind. The warehouse job isn’t mentally taxing—more robotic, which suits me for the graveyard shift. Twice they’ve asked me to become manager, and twice I’ve turned them down. Now, with rumors about the mill closing, I’m reevaluating. Ordinarily, the minuscule pay raise wouldn’t merit the extra work involved, nor would I embrace the focus on numbers and freight and employees. On the other hand, it’s a job. If the hours or benefits were better, sure. Anything to help us with Suli’s medical expenses, especially since she’s unable to work herself now. And anything to bite into the everyday expense of the brats and their hordes. We’ve got the four of our own, but man, it’s like we’re feeding kids by the dozens. Maybe because we often are. Suli craves the activity, though, the noise. The life in and around this house. I don’t tell her this, but it wears on me big time, especially when I’m tired, which is often, and when I’m fearful, which is always.

As I brush my teeth at the bathroom sink, I study the pouches under my eyes. Suli says they’re not as prominent as I make them out to be. At this hour, in this light, yes they are. I picture baby kangaroos peeking out the tops of them. I have to sleep more. That’s that only way. Sacking out during the daytime is tough, though, even when I’m bushed.

Beside me is the sledged clawfoot. I destroyed it the other day—which was sweatily therapeutic—and haven’t carried down the heavy remnants yet. My friend Spurdog is redoing this room around his regular construction jobs. No charge. He comes when he can, which isn’t often enough. He certainly knows my wife’s situation. I get it. He’s busy. We’re all scrambling for cash these days. Still…

In our bedroom, a table lamp casting her angular face in a harsh, pale tone, Suli is tranquil. This always startles me, so my first move is to our bedside. I place my hand on her chest. This is when I tell myself that she doesn’t feel sick, that she’s warm and not at all frail, that the treatments have completely cured her or that she never really was ill. It’s also when I remind myself to pose a brave face in case she’s watching. Every day, that face becomes more difficult to summon.

Suli breathes. I relax. A little. Outside, in the back, the ruckus never ends. More shrieking. More laughter. The smacking of feet racing across patio cement. When someone yells “I’m invisible!”, I don’t know what that means. I go to the back window and want to shout at them to stop already, land the point with a few indelicate words. Instead, I start to slide it shut.

“Don’t you dare,” Suli says.

I smile and return to the bed. We kiss. Despite all the half-empty glasses of juice, water, and tea on her rolling tray table—my God, our kids are attentive—her mouth is bone dry.

“Did you brush?” she says.

“Yeah,” I say. “Should I try again?”

“No. I just can’t taste the mint.”

“They said the chemo would mess with that. How was dinner?”

“Bland. Sheila made me some stir-fry instead. She really spiced it up.”


“Better than the stroganoff. Tell me it was delicious.”

“Damn right it was delicious,” I say. “Your daughter is an amazing cook.”

“My daughter, yes. You had no part in bringing her into this world.”

“They’re your children when they do something amazing, which is pretty much every five minutes. Their blunders are all me.”

Suli reaches for her water. I intercept her. “Let me do it,” she says. She grabs her medication, too, shaking the bottles like maracas. I don’t know whether she’s doing it for sport or spasming.

“Sorry,” I say.

“Yes, you’re so inconsiderate.” She smiles and kisses me again, this time more passionately. I want to taste her again, the real Suli, not the parched, pharmaceutical entity that is failing her. I taste cayenne and cilantro.

“I was thinking it’d be nice to laze down the Clarion one day soon,” she says. She stares toward the ceiling, her eyes sparkling green and ginger brown. “The whole family.”

“Our family’s ballooned to about forty according to the latest census, honey,” I say.

“I won’t mind if they bring their friends. I just want to float in the sun and be carried along the current. All this lying around on my bad days. Ugh. Do you think we’ll ever play tennis again?”

My voice catches when I attempt a quick response. Smooth move, Ford. “Of course,” I say on the second go. “We never finished our grudge match.”

“Because someone’s afraid of a little rain,” Suli says.

“I didn’t want to get my new sneakers wet.”

“A lame excuse. You’re afraid of my backhand.”

“I’m afraid of your everything, babe. You turn rabid on the court.”

“I don’t like to lose,” Suli says.

Our eyes lock for a moment. I put her drink on the stand and slide in next to her on the mattress. We hold each other and listen to unseen boys and girls terrorizing each other in the dark. Dogs chime in sharply, merrily.

With June and August the tent poles of summer, July is the saggy, sweltry expanse between. Before I quit my warehouse job, I use my employee discount to purchase an air-conditioner for our bedroom. I don’t know if it’s some change in the Earth’s axis, the recent loss of one of our big shady maples, or some sinister force at work, but both Suli and I have been more miserable up there compared to other years. Box and ceiling fans have been little help. Suli won’t let us move her downstairs, either, where it’s more temperate, because she doesn’t want our place to look like a hospital ward. “It’s a home,” she says. “That’s what children should see when they come in the front door. I’d be on display.”

“How about Sheila and Shiela’s lime green party room then?” I say. “You could dance with the spiders.”

“No thank you,” Suli says.

I’ve added a second shift at the mill, at least for now. I figured I’d bank as much cash as possible until they go under since the pay beats the warehouse job. Then, we’ll figure something out. Management has been great, flexing my hours so I’m at least home some evenings now and not having to sleep during the day. Guys have even stepped up to switch or cover hours when I need to run out for appointments or homebound emergencies. My body is having fits with these changes. It’s worth it.

Large, new bare spots have appeared in our side lawn where whiffleball games and badminton regularly take place. Right now, as I pull into the driveway from a grocery run, Ty and half a dozen of his friends are taking turns clubbing softballs from the street end of our lot toward the row of cherry trees that separates the back of our property from the Van Horn’s. It’s a good poke to clear those, especially for Little League rookies who haven’t yet honed their swing or balance or developed new muscles. I admire their ambition.

One look at how tall the grass has gotten and I wouldn’t mind if the rest of our yard were bare as well. Our Lawn-Boy is a sturdy but ancient machine. It politely requests that you proceed slowly, gagging if you lose patience. I’ll mow when I need to clear my head or when the kids complain about all the hidden land mines that pack their sneaker tread with dog dirt. “I grant you permission to cut the grass yourself,” I say. “You don’t pay enough,” they say.

As I carry groceries to the back porch, one of Ty’s friends yells, “Knock one over, Mr. Dobbs!”

Why not? I leave the sacks on the stoop and strut around the corner of our house. When I reach the front sidewalk, I accept the aluminum bat and take a wicked practice swing to scare the fielders. They don’t flinch, but my ribs do. I warn myself to take it easy on the next one.

When we were their age, my brothers and I—and our own neighborhood crew—played hardball here until we outgrew the space. Our Little League coaches wouldn’t even let us play catch with a softball during the season, insisting it’d mess up our timing and hand-eye. They also told us we couldn’t swim on game days, eat starches, or look at girls.

“No meatballs, Jeffrey,” I say to the pitcher. “Make me work for it.”

The first toss is an accidental brushback. I make a big show of it and stare Jeffrey down until he laughs into his mitt. The next, an underhand lob, is perfect. Seeing it drift in, I’m so anxious I clobber it deep but far left of my target tree, over some bushes and a bedsheet pinned to a clothesline in the yard catty-corner from ours. When it lands, it hits the parking pad just beside Mrs. Soyer’s cream-colored Impala and bounces into her passenger-side door. The noise is unpleasant. I spot Mrs. Soyer, who continues to drive too far into her nineties for my comfort, at the wheel. My first instinct is to hide like the other kids are doing.

I jog through the yards pretty much on the same angle as the flight of the ball until I reach her. The engine’s running. A quick look at the door reveals no damage. Maybe a scuff? Mrs. Soyer folds the Field & Stream mag onto her lap and presses a button on her console. The passenger window lowers.

“I’m awful sorry, Irene,” I say. “My aim’s off these days.”

“No better than it was when you were a child, Ford,” she says.

I laugh. “Yeah, I never reached my potential. Looks fine, though. Your door. See for yourself.”

“No need. How’s your Suli today?”

I take the same deep breath I always do when people shift the conversation like this. “Hanging in there,” I say after exhaling.

She sips what looks like beer from a tall juice glass. “I haven’t seen you two take your walks like you did.”

“Some of that’s her energy, some of that’s my work schedule. We get out when we can, even just to sit.”

“Sitting’s nice,” she says. “You’ve got that lovely porch.”

While we haven’t bothered Irene Soyer in recent years, she babysat all four kids once a few months after Mason, our youngest, was born. I thought Suli needed a break from the mayhem, and, truth be told, I needed it, too. It was early fall, still very warm. We drove two hours to Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio, staying at a cabin on a low, rough cliff overlooking Lake Erie. My plan was for us to hike miles along water’s edge, grill our dinners, drink very much wine, and gaze at the Milky Way for two blissful nights of zero responsibilities. Despite my protests—which led to a nasty argument—we hustled back the next morning because Suli desperately missed our children and the mayhem in ways she said I couldn’t imagine. She was correct.

I retrieve the ball and tap on the window, which Irene had just closed. She cracks it. “You need help with something?” I ask.

“No, just using the car air before I head back inside,” she says.

“Thought you had central in your house.”

“Oh, probably, but who wants to pay for all that? It’s free out here.”

Still feeling creepy about the errant swat smacking Irene’s car, I take front sidewalks back to our place instead of the trespassy hypotenuse. Moments later, I return to an empty yard. I grab the last of the groceries from the trunk and feel a twinge in my abdomen. Pull? Tear? Minor stuff. I peer up at our bedroom window before going inside. The frame around it could use some work. So could the yellow siding on the back side of the house. Which means the whole house needs it. Maybe a power wash would be enough, some spot painting on the trim? I can see if Spurdog has time. Or I can attempt it myself. I won’t, though. When I’m home, I spend the hours with my wife even when it means the Dobbs family home goes to pot.

Inside the living room are scattered blankets and pillows and sleeping bags and upended sofa cushions. Lovely. The TV’s on, but no one is here. I try the basement party room. The salvaged loveseat and several rickety wooden chairs crudely wall off the area Sheila & Co. had painted. Scattered cans of Mr. Pibb and gaping bags of Cheetos and Snyder Potato Chips contribute atmosphere. No one down here either.

My gut churns. Wincing, I take the basement steps two at a time and make short work of the upper staircase. When I charge into our bedroom, Suli and Cue are playing Chinese checkers. Suli is sitting up. She looks calm and radiant in the afternoon light. Her smile is so flush it chokes my throat.

“What do you think about pasta tonight?” she says. “I’ve been craving that sauce you haven’t made in a while.”

I work my lungs back to normal. “The Bolognese or the pesto?” I say, still quaking.

“Oooh, I forgot about the pesto. What do you think, Cue?”

Cue grinds the game marbles in his hand. He turns his neck and squints at me with a beady eye. “Pesto’s that green one, right? I don’t think so.”

“Bolognese it is,” Suli says.

“Extra spicy,” I say. “One more for dinner?”

We wait for Cue to catch on. He looks quizzically between us and nods emphatically. Then, fear. “Oh. But my father…,” he says.

“I’ll tell him you’re with us,” I say, patting his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it.” I connect with Suli. “Where’s the mob?”

“I told them to play elsewhere,” Suli says. “They weren’t being cordial.”

“The whole lot of them—poof? I wasn’t gone five minutes.”

“Just like that.”

Her eyes tell me that right now, this second, she’s comfortable, strong even. We gratefully accept these moments, these precious bursts, however fleeting.

“Your move, honey,” she tells Cue.

No pancetta here, so I dice some bacon to mix with the Italian sausage and ground beef. In a perfect world, I’d let the sauce simmer for two or three hours to gin up the flavor once I mix in the veggies, cheese, and magic. Our stomachs are not that patient. I boil water for pasta and pull a stool up to the stove. I’m sweating, so I sit back a ways while I stir and concoct. To my left is a window open to the side yard. If there’s a breeze sifting through the screen, I don’t feel it.

The sauce emits an occasional plip. The water has yet to boil. There is no music coming from the basement, no chaos in the yard. At last, there is peace. An unbearable silence.



About the writer:
Mike Murray is the winner of Colorado Review’s 2022 Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction. He was further recognized in Best American Short Stories for his Distinguished Story of 2022. His work has also appeared in OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters, The Rag, A River and Sound Review, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A writer, web developer, and book designer living in Pittsburgh, Murray’s one-acts have been produced for the stage.

Image: Steel Workers by Weinold Reiss (1886-1953). Drawing. Gouache or tempura on paper. No size specified. Circa 1920. Public domain.

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