By ERIC CIPRIANI
The air was grey in the valley, dense like frosted glass. From inside his truck Earl thought it looked as if there might be fires hidden in the hilltops, spreading smoke over the lowlands along the river. He pictured the trailers in Blue Ridge Manor reduced to cinders and scraps of aluminum, the elementary school out in Cadelle turned to an empty, blackened brick husk. He almost wished it were so. Then there’d be something to talk about and a reason to have spaghetti dinners and clothing drives to prove to one another what good people lived here, what a wonderful community they had, how fortunate they all were to be here in Carter County of all places. But it was just November.
He guided his Chevy through the two-lane’s gentle curves, past the WIC office and the new compound of trailers and stacks of black gas pipes waiting to be laid, past the dog kennels where he smelled shit and barley. He came around the bend where the road passed over Croke’s Creek, and the power plant’s smokestacks—fading, distant and hazy behind the fog— came into view across the river, with the hills’ silhouette and the blank sky at their back, their emissions unseen in the grey air. It seemed that the fog had consumed everything, choked the county into nonexistence. Earl drove carefully, watching for the deer and fallen rocks that sometimes inhabited the road.
He parked at Lou’s Café, which doubled as a depot for the one taxi in the county, and stepped out of the truck. These days he had little reason to leave his apartment, so he made it a point to at least drink his morning coffee in the presence of other humans. He limped slightly, his right leg still hurting and stiff with scar tissue. Inside, the four wood-laminate tables were empty, but Carl Trunk sat at the counter, where someone had placed a cornucopia of shellacked gourds for the holiday.
Carl was hunched over a mug, like he hoped the steam rising from it might tighten up the skin on his face. His right hand lay on the counter, pinky and ring fingers gone, lost after he got his glove caught in a coal conveyor at the power plant. The pink, scarred flesh reminded Earl of raw bacon, just as the flesh on his own calf and shin did. He sat a seat away from Carl.
Marcy waddled out from the back where the blackjack machines were. She held a cigarette below her waist, as if keeping it away from her face between drags might slow her emphysema. She said, “What can I get you, Earl?” He asked for coffee. After she brought it to him, she went to the back and put his money in a machine.
He bent over the cup, taking a few sips before growing tired of the silence and thinking maybe he should say something to Carl, but he stayed quiet. Carl hadn’t once looked up from his mug, so Earl figured he didn’t want to do any talking. Marcy came out to refill them once, one arm bent and holding the carafe, the other straight and holding a cigarette, then retreated to the machines. Staring at the wall, Earl imagined the grey air seeping through the cracks around the door, blocking everything out, blinding them all. Again, he imagined it not as fog or mist, but smoke.
There was a loud rumbling outside. Earl saw through the window a convoy of fracking trucks chugging by. He tried to distinguish their exhaust from the thick fog but could tell no difference. The trucks barreled up and down Route 6 with such authority that it was easy to forget that the road had even existed before they arrived, that it hadn’t been constructed just for them. A few years ago it was the kennel trucks with their white, slitted trailers that everyone remarked on, as if they expected a dog track twenty miles north to lift their drowning heads above the water. Before the racetracks and table games, it was the gambling machines. Before that there was work. Earl laughed to himself. Carl peered over at him. “Too bad we ain’t got ourselves some of that gas money,” he said.
“Yea, poor us,” Earl said back. He took his last cigarette out from behind his ear, lit it.
Carl let out a little puff of air, like a grunt, but not quite. “Ain’t sure what a leg’s worth, but two fingers don’t fetch what you’d expect.” He set his cup down firmly on the counter. “High supply, I guess.”
Earl kept his eyes on his empty cup, ashamed at the contempt he had heard in his voice. He thought he should ask Carl about his son. It was the polite thing to do, and most men liked talking about their sons, especially when they were smart like Earl knew Carl’s was. He decided it was the easiest way to be friendly. “How’s that boy a yours?” he asked. “Saw his name in the paper.” He spoke so loudly he scared himself.
Carl shifted his weight on the stool. “You’d know about as good as me,” he said.
“Ain’t seen him much.”
They sat for awhile staring at their cups and not talking. Poor us, Earl thought. Not even when he failed to survive the mill’s second round of layoffs, when the guys who took naps on the clock kept their jobs because they’d been there longer and the union contract said they had to stay, not even then had he fallen into the trap of feeling sorry for himself. But maybe that was because the coating plant had still been rolling out coils and needed guys with experience. The closest he had ever come to feeling self-pity was after his leg inexplicably slipped and shot itself into that tub of hot zinc. All he could remember before waking up in the hospital was pulling his leg out and thinking for a moment that he could see his reflection in the eight-hundred degree metal that coated his leg. Then someone sprayed it with a hose and he passed out.
Not even then did he quite feel sorry for himself. At least he didn’t think so.
The phone rang in the back and Marcy started yelling. Earl and Carl looked at each other the way tired men do when something distracts them from sitting and being tired and drinking whatever it is they like to drink, though neither had worked in months and were still searching for something to help explain their tiredness. If they had jobs then at least they’d have something to point to and say, That’s it, that’s the problem right there.
Marcy stormed out, red-faced and serious. Earl was disappointed she wasn’t holding the coffee pot, just her cigarette. “Either a you boys ever drive a taxi?” she said.
They shook their heads.
“Ray’s fat ass just called and said he can’t make it.” She puffed on the cigarette then shot her arm down. “It’s the night before Thanksgiving and the whole town’s gonna be drunked up and I’m actually gonna need someone. They know there’s gonna be checkpoints. People ain’t so dumb as you’d think anymore.”
Carl raised his right hand and pointed to where his fingers weren’t.
“You still got the important ones and you drove your ass here.”
He shrugged. “I’m goin to Poke’s and gettin drunked up.”
“I’ll do it,” Earl said.
Marcy eyed him as if he was an item in an auction. “Least someone in this hellhole’s still got a little work ethic. Come back around eight.”
The sky was black, charred, Earl thought. A few snowflakes fluttered like moths around the streetlamp lighting the four parking spaces in front of the building. He parked next to the Crown Victoria that said CARTER COUNTY TAXI CO. in peeling green letters. Inside, the waitress—the young drunks who came in at 3 a.m. called her Shovel Face—sat by the register chewing gum with her legs crossed. “Special’s meatloaf tonight. Seat yourself,” she said out of the side of her mouth.
“I’m driving the taxi.”
“You can still seat yourself.”
Earl took the spot at the counter where he had been in the morning. Marcy came in and congratulated him for being on time. He drank coffee until the first call came at quarter to nine. Marcy tossed him the keys and said, “Blue Ridge, better get gone. You know how they can be up there.”
There were still stray snowflakes drifting down to the earth, like the ash that would occasionally blow over from the coke plant when Earl was a child. He drove up Wallace Pike and the further up the hill he went, the more snow there was and the more he felt his heart beating in his chest and the more his hands jittered the wheel and he told himself it was just too much coffee, but he knew he could drink a pot by himself and lay still as a dead man. There was something about the night, the fog that had disappeared during the day and come back after dusk, thick and impenetrable. The road appeared distant.
He picked up a man he knew or maybe had seen around and only thought he knew because all the man said was, “Poke’s,” when he got in the taxi. Earl’s face could have been hidden in the dark as the road was becoming hidden by fog and snow, but he could see the face of the man in the back in the rearview mirror, and it was familiar in the way that most in town were: eyes set deep in the skull, cheeks soft and drooping—seeming at once fat and underfed, hopeful for something just out of reach, yet already broken. Earl hoped he didn’t look that way. He drove back down the hill. When the car passed the sewage treatment plant, the man in the back mumbled something about everything smelling like shit and Earl silently agreed. Even the tap water had a tang of old eggs and feet. This had never been a place that smelled pretty, but the stink used to mean something was getting built. It meant money, making a living. Now the county no longer had an excuse to smell of shit and sulfur.
Earl unlocked the doors after the man paid. He didn’t tip, and Earl was surprised to find that this angered him in a way he had never felt before. He hoped to see the man again, maybe pick him up later tonight, so he could smack him in the jaw.
The next guy did recognize him. It was Ned Eastham, who made Earl suspicious because he was always too happy to see everyone. After he got in the cab, he leaned forward, holding on to the passenger’s headrest, and gawked at Earl. “Pearson? How the hell are you?” he asked, his eyes wide and eager.
“Gettin by,” Earl said.
“I hear that.” Ned sat back, buckled his seatbelt. “So why are you doing driving this thing around?”
“Just tryin to be useful. Marcy needed help.”
“That’s just great, Earl. You know, it’s a shame what they did to you—how’s that leg of yours?”
Earl turned the radio on, but none of the stations came in. He didn’t like that Ned and a lot of others knew why he never went back to the plant after his accident. There were some who assumed he just couldn’t stomach returning, and he was fine with that. He’d rather have them think him a coward than another victim of some pieces of paper drawn up by a faceless board of directors, someone to pray for and pity.
“I said how’s your leg, Earl?” Ned yelled over the radio.
Earl pressed the gas and felt his new skin resist, stretch and tauten when he accelerated, loosen when he let up. “It’s got a foot on one end and a hip on the other,” he said.
“Ha! What a trooper!”
The windshield steamed up, and Earl fiddled with the knobs on the dash. The defroster came on. It cleared the glass, made the air in the car too warm.
He went back up the pike to take Paul DiCiccio from the Paradise Lounge to Poke’s in town. When Paul didn’t ask Earl how he was or why he was driving the taxi, but if he had seen the evening news, he felt relieved and calm. “Haven’t gotten around to installing my TV in here yet, Paul,” he said, his voice lighter than it had been all night.
“Some shit-wit kid broke into Chip’s old produce store,” Paul said, “only the kid didn’t know Chip’d been livin there since he lost the house.”
“Yeah? What happened?”
Paul hiccupped and burped into his hand. “Chip shot the damn boy. He’s in a damn coma.”
The pounding above Earl’s ribcage deepened and his muscles quaked. They were almost at the bottom of the hill when he finally mumbled, “What a shame, a real shame that is.”
“Man’s got a right to protect his home,” Paul said. He gave Earl a ten and told him to keep the change.
Back at Lou’s the waitress was sitting where she had been earlier and Marcy was leaning on the counter chewing gum. She turned to Earl and said, “You hear about Chip’s store?”
“Just did,” he said.
“I know that boy’s mom. The county wanted him sent away months ago for breakin into places, but she raised all kinds a hell.”
The waitress picked at her fingernails. “Should’ve just let him go, then at least he wouldn’t be a vegetable.”
Earl said, “I don’t think that’s too much of our business.”
“It was on the news, wasn’t it?”
“They put lots of things on the news, don’t make it your business.” He thought of how many more people recognized his name after the accident. “Can I bum a cigarette, Marcy?”
“You can get yourself a pack on your next trip.”
“Thanks,” Earl said.
He drank more coffee and waited until he had to drive a woman to the Dollar General. She apologized over and over for having a suspended license and not being able to drive herself, her stream of sorrys reminding Earl of the endless flow of visitors—friends, family, coworkers—that he had had to endure after his accident. They were all so sorry. His first visitors in the hospital, though, were two men in suits that he didn’t know. One of them stood by the door with a leather portfolio under his arm, the other sat in the blue plastic chair next to the bed. The man that sat wore a goatee and had shiny, gelled grey hair that reminded Earl of the zinc that burnt all the skin off his leg from foot to knee.
“So what’s the market price for galvanized scalps and legs?” Earl said after the man introduced himself as Ron Dryden from Human Resources. Ron scrunched his eyebrows and fidgeted in the chair.
“Do you know why we’re here, Mr. Pearson?” he said.
“Offer your prayers, best I can figure.”
“Well, yes, but there are other matters at hand.” He sat up straighter, too straight as far as Earl could tell.
“Such as?” he asked.
“You understand that at the time of your accident there were still two weeks left in your new employee probationary period, the terms of which were outlined in the employee handbook which you read and signed at the start of your time with the company?”
The standing man took a paper from the portfolio and brought it to Earl before going back to his post by the door. The paper was a copy of the final page of the handbook where Earl had scribbled his signature.
“Yessir,” he said.
“Then you know that involvement in a lost-time accident is grounds for termination.” Ron paused and breathed deeply like he was preparing to dive under water. When he opened his mouth to continue, a nurse peeked in and asked Earl how he was feeling. It bothered him that the staff seemed to be paying him special attention, poking their heads in “just to check up” only a few minutes after having left. Apparently an injury sustained on the job required extra sympathy to heal properly. He told the nurse he was fine, as he always did, and she left looking disappointed, as she and the others always did, as if he were denying them something they wanted dearly. He knew his accident had been reported on all the local news stations and maybe not as the headline, but somewhere on the front page of the papers. He couldn’t keep himself from imagining the nurses going home and telling their families whose morphine drip they put in today. It was something exciting, like a tragic accident or a high school sex scandal, which they had had to make do without for awhile.
Ron appeared to have forgotten why he was there. “You were saying, Mr. Dryden,” Earl said. Ron, face pointed at the tile floor, ran his hand over the top of his head a few times, then seemed to regret it when he noticed his palm and fingers were now covered in sticky residue from the gel in his hair. Earl laughed to himself. Ron brought his face from the floor. “I’m sorry, Mr. Pearson,” he said, “but you will not be returning to the plant after your recovery.”
Earl scratched his nose. “Ain’t that some shit,” he said.
The standing man spoke for the first time. “Do you have any questions or concerns, Mr. Pearson?”
“Concerns? No, not me. I’m good. Thanks for stopping by.”
Ron rose from the chair. He apologized again and wished Earl luck in his recovery. After the men left, he saw through the window the tops of the smokestacks jutting out from behind the wooded hillsides, and he wondered how much of his life had been spent staring at them. They were always there. Every time you looked west, they were what your eyes fell upon, not the oaks and poplars on the hills or the bend of the river or some high-flying bird, but them, and laying there in the hospital, he decided they weren’t as bad as everyone made them out to be, that they were beautiful in their way—tall, simple, useful. He decided he wanted to know what it was like to be burnt off into raw energy, all your poison shot up through a long, dark tunnel, so high into the air that by the time it fell to the ground it would be pure and no one would be the wiser, and he lay there thinking about fire and fuel and steel and pressed the button the nurses had given him and forgot there was no skin on his leg.
Driving south, Earl looked out the passenger-side window. Through the murk, he couldn’t see the towers of concrete he knew should have been there. Everything smothered, swallowed up. He was shaky and uneasy, barely able to see the road when the headlights of a car in the opposing lane flashed his eyes, his hands gripping the wheel so tight his forearms hurt, the tires seeming to slip now and then, though the roads shouldn’t have been slick from the flurries.
At midnight he got the first call for a ride home from the bar and was happy it wasn’t Carl. Because Carl would be drunk, he’d probably complain about his ex-wife and tell Earl how bad the world had done the two of them, just regular hard working guys who never did nothing to no one and deserved better. Earl decided that if he had to drive Carl, he would tell him what a leg was worth. Total loss of the limb had a value of 288 weeks of compensation at 66 and two-thirds percent of your average weekly earnings for the previous year. Some lawyers, with the help of two doctors—one Earl’s, the other the insurance company’s—decided that because he would regain the ability to walk unaided, he had lost only 25 percent of a leg, which meant 72 weeks of compensation: $30,854.43.
A few more calls came and he found himself eavesdropping on the conversations in the backseat. He didn’t feel bad for not minding his business because they were probably all things he would have heard eventually anyway. Johnny Littlepage stole Danny Reasnor’s car. The kid’s a fuck. He’ll be lucky if he doesn’t end up dead or a vegetable like that other dumbass. Jerry Leland, the lawyer on Schumer Street, has Hair Club hair. Rumor has it the city manager’s been using public funds to buy hookers across the river, but you didn’t hear that from me. Water smells like shit cause there’s shit in it.
In the weeks immediately after he was released from the hospital, when he was stuck in a wheelchair in his apartment, friends often brought him news like this—rumors, little details about life in town. Some controversy at city council meetings about utility rates, whose son was seen with whose daughter and did they ever look so cute together. Earl sensed that they did this to try to cheer him up, or at least distract him, but he didn’t want cheered up or distracted anymore than he wanted pitied. Their gossip simply made the world outside his door seem more distant, more abstract and not his, a place he only heard stories about.
A group of four guys squeezed into the back of the cab. They all looked like college except for one who was younger and obviously not 21. One of the older boys asked him what to do for blue balls and all he could come up with was put ice on them. Earl overcharged when he dropped them off.
He noticed it was two in the morning. He was alone on the streets. While he sat idling, the radio spewing static and broken voices, he had the sensation in his gut of standing at the edge of a cliff, looking down into the smallness, and he realized this was the sensation of disappearing, of becoming undone and knowing it, of watching yourself evaporate while the world went on icing its blue balls and drinking its shit-water, and there was nothing he could do to stop the fading that he had only now recognized for what it was—not just a disappearance, but an erasure, not an inexplicable slip, but something planned. He hit the gas, the skidding tires screaming loud and vicious, the flesh on his leg stretched and stinging. He could’ve been taking painkillers, but the numbness disturbed him more than the pain. It left him content with the stillness of his life—living off what the state said he could have, spending his days half asleep on the couch listening to Merle Haggard. He could’ve been selling his prescriptions to high school kids, but he still wanted to believe in spaghetti dinners and clothing drives.
He drove west toward the river where the water would be black and purposeful, soothing. But the phone in his pocket rang, and when he answered it, Marcy said, “One more, toots.”
“Fine, okay,” Earl said, “I can take someone home.”
Two more drunk men sat behind him. One of them wore a plaid scarf and the other had a diamond in his right ear. They talked about politics too loudly, and Earl wanted to turn around and scream at them, but he told himself, No, you are taking them home safely because they are human goddamn beings with bones that can be broken and maybe hopeless little children that can’t tie their shoes but get good grades and love Daddy dearly and because that is what you are doing, you are taking them home. He gripped the wheel and drove slowly.
The scarf brought up some protests in big cities and the earring took a deep breath like he was preparing to tell the bitter medicine truth of the world.
“I understand that some people need help,” he said, “but can we just agree to use lethal force on those jackasses? Stop complaining about how shitty your life is and get a job.”
The light at the intersection of 16th and the two-lane—where the old boarded up Sunoco sat across from the old boarded up Ashland—turned yellow. Earl brought his right foot down on the accelerator because he was tired and yearned for this to end. He sensed the tail-end begin to slide and he could have let off the gas and straightened the car with a tiny turn of the wheel, but instead he loosened his fingers and let the vehicle continue its course as it spun toward the right side of the road as if pushed by an invisible hand. He wanted to know if he was wrong about the bones in the backseat.
In the moments before the rear passenger-side collided with an empty gas pump, Earl saw his face in the spiraling greyness that had draped itself over the valley for what seemed like his lifetime, and what he saw was not the everyone face that begged to be saved, but a face singularly his, a face that had saved itself, that knew goodness and empathy existed, but no longer expected either. The car stopped with a jolt and the dry gas pump came loose from the cement, falling to the ground. Earl heard the dull thud of skull against skull from the men in the backseat. Something like night river water dripped down their faces. Earl felt guilty for forgetting to remind them to put their seatbelts on.
They screamed and called him a motherfucker and demanded his name, but he wasn’t listening. He was imagining the accident as it might have been—smoke, flames, light cutting through the dark, a beacon. But there was only the screaming no one heard. When the men yelled at him to unlock the doors, Earl said, “Get fucked. I’m taking you home.”
He drove away as if nothing had happened, focused on the lines of the road.
Eric Cipriani is a graduate of West Virginia University and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in NAP, The Adroit Journal, Burner Magazine and The Susquehanna Review.