Sitting in gin joints was at least one-half my life. Wherever the iron men were, there I was, too. Oh, you wouldn't see me. I'd be around, in the back, corner booth, near the john - you know the type. Couple of beers on the table, couple of shots, all of them clearly on my side of the line. The kind of glassware company that scares off any other sort. Doesn't bother my liver, of course; it's hard as a rock. Maybe harder. Still makes the head spin, though; still numbs pain like old Doc Holliday used to prescribe, they say. The waitress in here was easier to train than most; she just tipped me a professional eye and shrugged, then started bringing a shot and a beer every ten minutes or so. I think she's got a bet going with the bartender. Hope I don't cost her any tip money, though, because tonight, I'm working.
Object of my attentions comes through the door around ten PM. He's down on what little luck he has, and looks nervous on top of that. Has a couple of fast shots of Beam, looks to steady the nerves, then starts looking around the place. I ignore it; he isn't looking for me. Sure enough, his eyes light on me and slide right off. I use the time to wave my shot glass at the waitress who grins at the 'tender. She's probably got her money shorted on me. Oh well. She could've just asked; I wouldn't have lied to her.
* * *
The worst part is when they have to come and ask. I try to tell them that there's no reason they shouldn't; that in fact, it makes it all easier. But they don't listen, or don't hear. I'd been in a bar much like this one, in actual Pitts, when they found me. Was three of them then, literally hats in hands. The bar had been split pretty evenly between the old steelers and the yuppies; these guys had been so out of place they'd crackled. Working ironmen, from one of the small Japanese foundries that had set up shop in the bones of the old plants, using them to experiment and refine techniques; they were the lucky last of a dying breed, and they knew it.
Still, they had pride and family. That's why they'd come.
I don't hide from them. I don't make it easy, but I don't hide from them. If they need me, really need me, they know where I'll be - either near the University or near the mills, near what once was home. In a bar. Like this.
They told me about the man who'd come to town. He was Japanese, like their employers. He wasn't too flashy, but he had a job, and some money to spend. Worked at the plant, so he had to be OK, pulled a full shift and then some. Had some money to lend. Lent it out to a couple of the brothers in need, for the mortgage payments - the new boss liked to pay monthly, and the boys with jobs were still paying off the lean times. Our friend was willing to help. Union boy in Japan; said he was a Union rep, had some discretionary, wanted to spread good will and hoped to see good relations.
I winced. They hunched, knowing themselves for fools, but I nodded encouragement and bought beers.
So comes the day four, five of the brothers are a couple days behind on Shigei's payments, too. Then it comes out. He's Left Hand of the Neon Chrysanthemum - Japanese Yakuza. Yep, he's been looking for a toehold, all right. Still all friendly, though - says all he needs is their mortgages, they can live there for a rent one-half their old payments. Offers them leases and everything. Still, the brothers had some years and pride in those houses, and a couple of them balked, said they'd come up with the scratch. Shigei, he laughed, said sure, take a week.
One got it, One didn't. They found him on the shop floor with a spike through his heart nailing him to a drill press. Cops came in, interviewed everybody, shook their heads.
The next guy late didn't get the one-week extension. They found him spiked to a wall near the slag heap, perfectly through the heart.
So here they were.
I bought them more drinks, sent them home.
Then I went and got the gym bag.
The guys on the shop floor saw me coming through the familiar atmosphere of carbon combustion and tortured metal. Movement slowed in a dozen places, bar stock wavering on its way to diamond teeth while flat plate screamed a more bass note, easing its torment while the operator's foot came off the pedal slightly. I hunched into my trenchcoat, clutching my gym bag to me, and closed the familiar softwood door, the once-bright green paint fading around layers of tan and white into grimy wood grain where hands had worn it down.
Turning left along the wall, I touched the rack of plastic cards for luck (luck always) and kissed my fingertips automatically, even though it had been maybe nine years since I pulled a shift in the shop. A couple of the older guys, though, they nodded to me as I passed, and one or two clutched the bright plastic tags that hung round their necks as they caught my eye, I tried to meet their gazes but always failed, settling for a nod and hunch, scuttling (it felt) along the wall towards the next section, reflexively holding the bag. Most of them gave me my space, nodding and turning away. I might make it through, today.
The whisper came as I was reaching for the knob, almost feeling old, ridged glass in my hand with years of metal dust ground against it. Somewhere outside on Main, a klaxon wailed and a smelter disgorged with a familiar hissing scream that pulled at something deep inside me. I almost missed it, but the thunder from the steel died abruptly and it fell flat into the room. "Who's that, Ern?"
I twitched, hand already on the knob and turning, and another voice cut over in a growl. "Nobody, kid. That's nobody. Eyes on yer drill, dammit." I paused a moment, hoping my gratitude showed in the set of my shoulders, then pulled the door open and marched through.
I wasn't sweating, the shop had good AC; and I couldn't be crying, but my makeup was starting to run.
The second room was quieter, with the muted sounds of power. Hydraulics ruled here, not muscle; where before metal was cut, or drilled, or ripped, here it was crushed and pressed and stretched, science used not as weapon but as persuader. At the moment, there was only one man in it, and he was watching me as I closed the door. I turned to face him. He was probably around seventy, and I had known him since I was an infant.
"Hi there Timmy." His voice hadn't changed. A sad Irish seaman.
"Top of it, Gerry."
He looked me up and down, then shook his head. "Why?"
"I ask every time."
"You get the same answer every time."
"It's always the wrong one."
"It's the same as you'll get this time as well."
He limped over the the side of the room and slid a battered gym bench over to where he'd been standing. I moved to it and sat down, shrugging off the trenchcoat and dropping the gym bag on the asbestos-mat floor. I looked up before opening it. He was weeping, silently, but turned away when I looked up. "Your makeup's gone bad, boy."
"I thought it had." I removed a mouthpiece from the gym bag and set it on the bench, then set a fifth of bourbon next to it. The bourbon wasn't going to help me any more than it had Doc Halliday's patients, but the forms must be observed. I adjusted the bench so that my left arm rested comfortably on the machine next to me, then uncapped the flask and drained the bourbon in a convulsive shudder. Dropping bottle and cap back into the gym bag, I moved my arm so that my hand was resting on the work surface. I inserted the mouthpiece, rested my hand flat and examined my knuckles for a moment. No makeup trouble there; they looked worn but serviceable. Hadn't done anything hideous to my hands in months. I spread the hand out flat, the wrist resting over the edge, and nodded at Gerry where he stood by the door.
He turned away, his hand working on the wall.
* * *
My pigeon is still sitting at the bar. He's now had maybe five or six shots of the brown liquor, and now he's nursing a beer. I'm still running through glassware, watching the expectant grin of the waitress droop a little more with each round she brings me as I fail to fall over. Not my problem.
This is a serious steeler's bar. Not like the other night. Guys come in here shaking the dust out of their clothes, and that dust hits the floor with a clang. You can smell the coke and the burnoff on them when they come through under the old faded Stroh's sign with its cracked bell fifteen feet down the aisle past the house-wins pool table. I tried one game on it when I came in, but only the locals will know the hummocks and valleys in that shale; it could be a shag carpet over slag heaps and mine pits in the dark. I move my gaze away from the newcomers, who are heading for a table of friends, back to my own one-way pal. He's just looking at the drinker's friend behind the bar.
Curious, I move to the bar to order a beer, standing just next to him. Our eyes meet once in the mirror, and his look too interested - I look at myself, find a gleam beneath my hat brim, and duck away. The barkeep hands me my beer with a grin, genuine when he sees I'm not staggering. I tip him and take it back to the booth. When the waitress passes again, I order a fresh shot and tip her in apology for the breach of drinker's code.
When the noise level in the bar drops suddenly at the same time as the flat tinkle of the broken Stroh's chime sounds, I know they're here. No need to look. I smooth the leather of my gloves and swig the shot, wishing I'd gotten this one with ice, waiting. The alcohol stings my mouth, a sensation without a taste. Sharp rather than soft, because soft means pain. Time slips backwards again as my palate numbs.
* * *
Among the haze of pain and the complete lack of taste that was the football mouthguard's silicone compound, I could feel Gerry dragging me around on the bench. My hand flopped to the floor, but the pain was already so intense that I just shuddered slightly, enervated by the overload. He'd put my other hand up on the slab, spreading it out flat, and our tears were mixing on my face. I felt hot salt pushing aside the several spots of layered base, flesh tones running down my neck in rivulets of shame and lanolin. Gerry swung my legs up on the bench and I managed to flap my jaw a couple times; he got me balanced and then took the mouthpiece out. It takes him a couple minutes of trying. When it's out, he put his ear to my mouth, where I was biting my tongue to taste the blood, and I managed to get it out between my teeth. "Chest."
He nodded then, looking away, and put the mouthpiece back in. In my memory he moved back to the door. I have several seconds, then and now, to feel the heaviness in my gut and wonder at the time that this sensation makes it through the neural noise before motion caught my eye, and I passed out watching the press slide smoothly down its track again in a ballet of hydraulics and mechanical advantage.
* * *
A clink of glass brings me back, blinking; I've tipped the empty shot glass in my fist. My boy's party is here. There are three of them, and they swagger. One is sharply dressed; Shigei. One is nondescript, with a briefcase; the banker, probably. One is enormous: the enforcer. He's not impossibly big, but he's larger than almost everyone else in the bar. Unlike them, his size is for violence, not hard work, and it shows. He carries only a small case, such as might hold a pool cue. He doesn't drink, nor speak; merely parks himself behind Shigei at the bar while the latter orders a drink. The banker sits on a stool and lays out papers, precisely. My friend from earlier looks down the bar at them. Shigei catches his eye and smiles, beckoning.
Whatever mistakes my quarry has made, he's got brass. He puts down his beer and sidles down the bar. Shigei puts an arm around his shoulders in false companionship; idly, watching, I notice that indeed Shigei has worked Main. He has the burns and calluses of a working steeler beneath his imported silks. He's talking smoothly, easily - he's done this before. My friend isn't playing with the program, though; he keeps shaking his head. Several entreaties to reason, to hope, to harmony follow, me filling in the words across the now muted but still noisy bar. Local boy is afraid, desperate, but adamant - apparently, he doesn't have the mortgage, or can't sign it, or something along those lines. Right on schedule, Shigei gets less friendly, the enforcer starts to look interested, the banker starts stacking (unsigned) papers, and I have to use the bathroom.
This puts me just behind enforcer and my friend as they head down the hall towards the jakes and the back door, local boy's face pinched in pain with one arm behind his back. Nobody's looking, of a sudden. I stagger behind them, my hat down and my collar up, and out the back door, closing it behind me, before turning to look.
The enforcer has local boy up against the wall in the alleyway and looks like he's preparing to administer a suggestion with the lead sap held in his right hand. I clear my throat. Both of them look over at me, one with hope and one with professional interest. I smile and shrug, palms up. Enforcer slowly lowers my friend to the ground, then turns to him and fussily, carefully straightens his jacket and shirtfront. The poor guy looked at him, completely confused, but enforcer just ignores him and turns back to me with a question in his gaze, I bow, shortly but properly. Satisfactory. He nods, then steps back and indicates the door to the local, who looks at him, then at me, panic fighting confusion and hope. I smile and nod once, then remove my hat. He looks at me harder, not quite getting it, so I smudge my face slightly to show the shine. His eyes clear like a dog seeing a duck fly over and he practically soars through the door. Enforcer and I smile at each other and wait.
We don't have to wait long. Shigei comes tearing through it a moment later, dragging the banker. He stops, then lowers the pistol he's holding in one hand to look at both of us. We look back. After a moment of silence, he puts the gun away and hands the enforcer the small case from his other fist. "You are staying for him?"
"That is acceptable."
"We shall all go to the front, to my car."
The strange parade we are goes around the piss-smelling side of the bar without incident, crossing the moderately busy two-laner and piling into a non-descript minivan. Shigei looks at my face with some interest. "Your face..."
"Is that a fashion here?"
"Nah. Just me. Injury."
"Ah, I see. You are a steel worker? You were?"
He nods, satisfied. Turns around. Enforcer keeps an eye on me as we drive the fifteen minutes to the plant's slag area. Banker stays in the car as Shigei, enforcer and I get out and walk towards the fence surrounding the active slag heap. Heat rolls out at us, despite the last dump having taken place some hours before; the trash metal still glows at the top. I stop at the fence, my back to it. Enforcer has opened his case, and taken out (as expected) a large metal spike.
Shigei cocks his head, every inch the haughty Yak. " You have honor and bravery for an American about to die."
"I'm not worth much." I grin for him. It's not for me.
"Your friend is, then?"
"Sure. More than me."
Shigei just looks a moment longer, then nods. Enforcer raises the spike in what looked like a practiced move and drives it into my chest.
It's akin to being hit by a truck. I stagger backwards, despite being ready for it. There's an earsplitting CLANG and the spike drops. Enforcer screams, his right arm numb and useless, and falls slowly to his knees, looking at the hole in the front of my coat. It's torn now, as is my shirt. I hadn't bothered to put makeup on my chest; there's some blood and meat, but mostly my muscle and visible rib bone where the spike had struck shines dull gold. I grin down at him. He looks up at me, holding his right hand, and I punch him hard in the nose.
My hand breaks through his nasal structure and sinuses, coming to a stop somewhere in the middle of his head. He falls sideways as I pull my ruined glove from the hole, and with the other hand strip it from my gleaming fist. Shigei is babbling at me, gun in his hand but pointed at the ground; I step over to him and say simply "Not my friends," before killing him.
* * *
I had to go back to the minivan and kill the banker, but after that it was just a matter of hauling their bodies onto the top of the slag heap and covering them with metal scraps. I wear fireproof boots, still. Ask the steelers. The minivan might show up, one day, if somebody does a really careful chemical analysis of the next day's meltdown.
After that, it was back to drinking. It takes a few weeks for the brass to fade, heal back into flesh, and it hurts until the moment it's gone. I guess it's better than that disease where you turn into bone and never turn back - but then, I'm not sure. People in those posters always have families around them fighting for them, or doctors hoping to cure them, making it clear they're worth something.
Me? Like I told Shigei, I'm not, haven't been since the day I killed my best friends and family. The guys, I look out for them, and they think I'm worth something. They're wrong, though. Because if they knew the truth, they wouldn't call me what do they when I'm not around, because there's always something not even worth a Tinker's Damn.
Posted by jbz at November 3, 2004 4:40 PM