Bridge & Tunnel Books
IMG-0284 copy.jpg

The Commute

"Goldfarb" by Charlie Sutherland

God must have put me here, for there isn’t a soul in this town that can tell me who did. In any case, I wound up on the stoop of the Goldfarbs’ trailer, assnaked, diaperless, and Pap said that I’d rolled my little self onto my belly so I could scarcely breathe. It was perhaps an hour before Pap came out and saw me. He took me inside and named me Elsa. That was in the summer of ’79.

Pap’s got a bum heart; it’s a wonder it’s still ticking and carrying on, and the sight of me, that nude ball of a baby, nearly killed him. He says ain’t it funny that the best thing to ever happen to him nearly killed him?

I say yeah Pap, it’s a riot.

 

From the top of Smith Hill, where Paszek’s Metallurgical is, you could see the old mill, what with its volcano of sawdust at the north end and its rows of cars at the south, all of them parked backward so the drivers could escape quick as possible come quitting time.

That’s where I’d spend most lunches, down there in the mill with Fred Beech. He wouldn’t come to me because I said I hated being at Paszek’s any longer than I had to, and besides, I needed the exercise, and he said fine. So I’d walk down the hill from Paszek’s everyday and he’d keep me company and he’d sometimes have half an egg sandwich to spare. He was good to me mostly. He was very good to talk to. Seems as though all that time I was waiting for a kiss, he figured all I desired was half an egg sandwich; I’d twirl a length of my hair and lick my lips at him and he’d hold out his lunch pail like all right, I could have a bite. A fine man, Fred Beech. The old-fashioned type, the type you hardly see anymore.

A lot of folks ask me why I never took a husband. You’re probably wondering it yourself, so I’ll tell you what I tell them. Before birth I was claimed by the Lord my God, then came the stoop, where I was put, then a man named Ray Goldfarb had the decency to claim me, and when I grew up, the boss at Paszek’s claimed me, and by then I’d taken all the claiming a soul could endure. Now it’s too late even if I was to change my mind, for my arms are thicker and harder than a man’s, and that isn’t the look of a mother.

Pap says he wants to get married, even at his age. He says he and I are dumb idiots for being single. He says I ought to get married because what the hell else was I going to do, a pretty girl like myself.

He had a wife once. I never knew her. He talks about her sometimes. The way he talks about her, you’d think she was still around. Miranda was her name.

 

Only with long, hard years does a man come to know fear in all its evil dimensions. A steel band could take your eye out and it’d all be over. Even a broken foot could do you in. If you hurt your hand, you’d just as well start digging. If you’re hurt so bad you can’t work, that means you’re hurt so bad you can’t eat. That or you got some very hospitable friends who wouldn’t mind you bumming their cigarettes three times a day and who wouldn’t care if you ate up their refrigerators and slept on their sofas while they were at work.

If you can’t work your shift at Paszek’s or in the mill, you go to work in one of the factories along Route 22, and soon the bosses over there will find that you’re no good for that either and so then you go to work at the Mickey D’s or the Walmart, and that’ll be all she wrote, you won’t stand a chance. I’ve seen it a thousand times. First come the Mickey D’s, then come the Reaper.

 

One time at lunch break, I went down to the mill and Fred Beech and I went out to sit at the picnic table out back and that was the day I thought it’d happen. He said El, your eyes ain’t green is they? I said I don’t know, what do you care. He said he did care and that they were some big, beautiful eyes in any case, green or otherwise, and he moved in sort of close and we started chatting about this or that and he started saying how I should come work at the mill and how everybody could use a change in scenery, how he could sure use the company. I said they’d crucify me and he laughed and I said I’d think about it and then the blower machines turned on and groaned sadly and deeply and lunch was over.

From a little after the bout of cold that came in after New Years to the hot and damp miserable slowness of August, I thought it might happen. Romance was in the air.

Or so I thought.

Fred would wink that little wink of his in my direction and sometimes he forgot to wear his wedding ring. Oftentimes I sensed that he sensed I was fond of him. Wasn’t till the end of that summer that things started getting bad and then I knew it wouldn’t happen at all. Yes, once things started getting bad, they weren’t going to go back to good again, I was pretty sure of that. I’ll get it over with and tell you upfront, right now, that my instinct proved true. Fred Beech did not live to see October. In the days before his death he did not want to see me. In the weeks before his death he did not wish to speak to anyone; he did not say a word.

A little more than a week prior to his death, I went to check up on him at his trailer and his wife had gone away. He sat in the corner of the room drinking bourbon and chewing tobacco. He simply stared into his cup of bourbon. There was a moment during that visit when I thought he looked up at me, but I think it was by accident. The trailer smelled like tobacco and I realized that Fred Beech had been spitting onto the carpet.

It’s earlier in the summer of that year before things started happening. It’s, I don’t know, June, maybe July. I’m working an extra long shift, and I’m taking more than my share of heat from the boss because he thinks I put a dent in one of the forklifts. It was Roger White who caused the dent, not me; I don’t say a word, not that I care much for Roger White, but tattling’s not something I stand for. I’m scurrying around like lightning trying to load up an export to China. I’m heaving boxes filled with small cast-iron rolls up onto stacks piled eight-high. The pallets I’m putting the boxes onto are made in the mill and shipped up here every week before they’re shipped off to someplace like Canada or Chile or China.

I call out to the boss, saying the Chinese can wait a minute and a half for a piss break, wouldn’t you say so? He hollers back watch that mouth of yours and turns to the boys saying, better not hurry her, I think, she’s liable to have a cow, just look at her. She’s a basketcase of a broad if I ever saw one and a bona fide whiner to boot. Say, boys, we ought to provide her with broken fingernail insurance. That last little jab got a lot of laughs. Then he starts laying into me, going as far as to reveal that I asked for a pay raise a month back, and the boys are laughing harder yet, like who in the Sam hell does she think she is. A pay raise, someone says. They all laugh.

All of a sudden I almost crush my foot when I drop one of the boxes, and the boss hollers out she can’t even load up a pallet right, the poor dumbass slob. Would you just look at her, she oughta wear a helmet. I pick up the box and heave it onto the pallet. I look back at the crowd of boys. The boss looks at me and says ain’t got no goddamn sense, do you? The boys have another quiet laugh and turn to get back to work. The boss says oh and by the way, Goldfarb, put another dent in that lift and I put another dent in you, hear?

So the next day I took my paycheck from the lady in the office and I left. Felt good doing it too, although I was back in a month like they said I would be, but for different reasons.

When I quit, I went to work in the mill for those two weeks. I showed up and Fred Beech was there to greet me. He had a big grin on his face like he couldn’t believe I’d done it. We hugged.

Mostly they had me making pallets. They didn’t let me near a forklift because the boss from Paszek’s had called them up and told them about how I’d put a dent in one of his, how I wasn’t to be trusted. They didn’t let me catch lumber on the multiple ripsaw either, even though I told them I was a hand at that kind of fast-paced labor. They asked didn’t I want to do a comfier job? When I shrugged my shoulders, they said well didn’t I? I said yes, I supposed I would.

The job entailed keeping up with a machine, which chugged along at a leisurely pace, left to right, left to right, and it was my job to slip the runners and deck boards into position before the nails came down in big hydraulic gushes.

Sometimes a big, blonde-haired man named DeMent was assigned to help me, though I didn’t need help. DeMent said words that no one could hear. I’d yank out my earplugs and say, what? He’d just shrug his shoulders and keep on working. I never knew what to make of him. I asked Fred Beech what DeMent’s deal was, and Fred Beech said the man is a victim of his circumstances. He is a good man, but nobody would know because nobody cares to know. I asked Fred Beech why DeMent never said anything. He paused and said DeMent used to talk a whole lot back in the ‘90s but he ain’t said more than a handful of words ever since, and once you lose your voice it ain’t common for it to be put back in your voicebox; DeMent was sort of like a bee that had lost his stinger, in that way. I never knew what to make of that.

I could make a pallet every three minutes, but I never did feel a great deal accomplished. It was the machine that always ended up doing most of the work. I didn’t feel that I had a whole lot of control over anything, and as a matter of fact, I didn’t. I suppose I could turn the machine off, but if I did, I’d get hollered at. I realized that out-of-control was the phrase I’d use to describe how I felt about a lot of things in my life. Of course I could have gone someplace else, Pap said. Could have lived in some far-off country, done anything, been anybody, married anybody. Pap maintains to this day that the world is my oyster.

 

Pap used to work in the mill. I remember the day after graduation when I went to work at Paszek’s. He was proud. He had always wanted to work at Paszek’s. He'd dreamt of working up on Smith Hill, the views from up above, of the town and the little creek and the distant factories down the highway. But the bosses on the hill would not have him. At the age of 35, he was too old, they told him. He saw this as nothing more than a health insurance issue, but they assured him that it wasn't. It reminded him of when he was too young to go to war. Somehow throughout his life he was always the wrong age to do the things he had a mind to do. But he never grew bitter about it. He understood. He took each instance as a sign from God.

In ’75, when he ground his fingers off in the moulder machine, there was no real use for him. All he had left on his right hand were a couple of stubs. He learned to use his left hand, but you need both to do the job right. They kept him on at the mill for a few months after the accident, out of pity, I think, and then they had to let him go. He was getting old anyhow and probably had only one more decade of labor left in him. He applied for a job at the supermarket on Main, but they turned him down. Instead, he went to work at the general store that’s now a Wal-Mart, where he has forever stayed. He and Miranda had to go live in a trailer. She left him a year later, a few weeks after I showed up on his stoop.

Praise be to the Lord God Beloved for that day in ‘79, he said, and I said so too.

 

Fred Beech caught lumber on the multiple ripsaw all day. He did little else. I sometimes got a glimpse of him on my way to the bathroom and I’d wave, but usually he was too focused on his work to notice me. The other men took note of our interactions and gave Fred hell for it and he gave hell back and it didn’t take long for something to happen.

How the multiple ripsaw works is this: one guy’s got it easy, he operates a joystick, which controls how fast the treadmill goes, which determines how fast the lumber gets cut, which determines the other man’s pace. The other man (here it was Fred Beech) has a harder job. He catches the newly cut pieces and stacks them on a pallet, and in the meantime he scarcely has time to scratch his head if it itches. The two workers have about ten feet between them.

Once, on a Tuesday, as a practical joke, the man with the joystick revved up the treadmill to the highest speed. Fred Beech tried to keep up, like he wanted to show the man he could take it, but by and by Fred Beech started getting behind, and the wood started falling onto the floor before he could get his hands on it. He hollered out stop, please stop. It was too loud in the warehouse for anybody to hear his words. He was sweating, still trying to keep up. He had to dance to keep the wood from crushing his feet, and the man with the joystick just held forth with his tormenting. The man went on laughing like you’d laugh at a dancing monkey. Fred Beech hollered out curse word after curse word and he decided it was time to give up trying to keep up with the work, so he started launching the pieces of wood at the joystick man, who dodged them easily.

By now there was a crowd of spectators, all of them laughing and holding their bellies and high-fiving as Fred Beech returned fire, almost in tears, until finally he put his foot down in the wrong place and a pile of lumber spilled onto it and broke it. He stood there awhile, just staring at his broken foot. He hobbled off of his platform with tears on his face and hopped on his good foot toward the man with the joystick, who was slowly backing away. Fred Beech turned to his left, leaned over, took hold of a three-by-four, held it above his head and brought it down on the joystick. The electrical box, the jacked-up hunk of metal with the joystick on it, exploded. Fred Beech hopped after the man, who was still sort of amused. He kept following the man until he saw me running toward him, yanking out my earplugs and asking what was the matter. I saw him dry his eyes with his shirttail and I asked him what was wrong with his foot. He said never mind. He hugged me and cried deeply into my neck.

The damage to the electrical box would cost two or three grand, never mind the cost to fix his foot, he told me at work the next day. Three grand was more than he had. I told him no way would they make him pay for it, and he said what did I know, I didn’t know anything.

He didn’t last long at the mill, though he wasn’t fired. One day he just didn’t show up. He didn’t like the way the other men looked at him after they’d seen him cry. He especially didn’t like the way I looked at him, he said. I said I wasn’t looking at him in any particular way and he said yes I was.

He went to work at the Wal-Mart; Pap got him the job. Pap had always wanted me and Fred Beech to get married. I said that Fred Beech was already married to another woman and he always said excuses excuses. One day after work Pap told me that Fred Beech was perhaps not all right in the head. Fred Beech scarcely said a word all the day long. He’d just stand in his red apron at the automatic door of the Wal-Mart and stare at the oncoming customers, but he never greeted them like he was supposed to. I said he’s just in one of those moods. Pap wasn’t sure. When Pap asked Fred Beech what was the matter, Fred Beech said this is humiliating. Pap took offense to that; he’d been working that job since before I was born.

 

I was making pallets when the secretary tapped me on the shoulder. She said there’s a call from your father. I followed her to the office and picked up the receiver and said hello and Pap asked did I know where Fred Beech was. I said no. He said well he’s not at work.

I stopped by Fred Beech’s trailer after work. He wasn’t there. The place smelled like tobacco and bourbon and potato chips.

I didn’t know who else to call, so I called the local police. The man on the phone said not to worry, he was probably out fishing. I called the Washington police department and they said they hadn't heard anything. Then I called the Steubenville police department and the woman on the phone said thank God someone cares about that poor soul. I said what the hell are you talking about and the woman said Fred Beech had been picked up stone cold drunk early that morning at a motel in Jefferson County. Thinking his wife was hiding in one of the rooms of the motel, he went in to investigate. When the woman at the front desk refused to divulge any information about the motel guests, he got in his car and drove it through the door of the lobby. The police showed up. He resisted arrest.

I drove to Steubenville.

When I arrived at the jail, I had to wait an hour in the visitation area. Then Fred Beech came hobbling in. His eyes looked like big black holes; they’d been worked-over pretty good by the looks of them, perhaps by a police nightstick. I said Fred your foot isn’t getting any better, is it? He didn’t say anything. I offered him a stick of gum and he sat down beside me and he nodded and took it and chewed it.

I visited Fred Beech a few more times and then I visited him at the penitentiary when they shipped him over there. I told him it’s a whole lot of trouble to pay for gas to come here, and he nodded. I thought I saw him start to cry but I was wrong. After a while of sitting silently, he held out his hand like he wanted something. I asked him what he wanted. He refused to speak. I knew what he wanted but I couldn’t bring myself to give it to him. I said, Fred Beech, it turns out your wife wasn't in the motel at all. She'd gone to her mother's. I said this almost to hurt him, to get some look of acknowledgement out of him. He started humming a deep hum. He looked crazed. I handed him a stick of gum and he shut up.

That’s how things went for a week or so. You could tell he was deteriorating pretty quickly. It got so bad he didn’t want to sit up straight. He used to have such good posture. I would say that to him all the time. You have such beautiful posture for a man of your occupation, I’d say. He’d laugh and say much obliged, El, and motion like he was tipping an invisible cowboy hat.

When they found him the next morning, they called the secretary at the mill. She walked around the warehouse blubbering and informing every worker individually. I could see everyone looking down at their shoes and I knew what had happened and I took out my earplugs and dropped them into the sawdust. The secretary came up to me, couldn’t look me in the eye.

How’d it happen, I said. She looked away and said by his own hand. I told her thanks and she went away.

 

When I go back to work at Paszek’s, the boss calls me into his office, says it’s good to have me back, says he’s got a photograph he’s been waiting to show me. I can tell he’s kind of excited; he’s perhaps even fidgeting with excitement. He leans down beside his desk and pulls out a sheet of computer paper from the bottom drawer.

There’s a black-and-white photograph printed onto it. It’s a picture of Fred Beech. It’s his mugshot, only it doesn’t much look like Fred Beech. He’s unshaven, his forehead is wrinkled, and his wounded eyes are black ink splotches filled with no understanding. I scream a little and cover my eyes and the boss hands the sheet of paper to me, like a present. I take it and fold it up and put it in my hip pocket. The boss grins and says you and Beech was pretty close wasn’t you and I say not really. I turn around and get back to work.

 

CHARLIE SUTHERLAND spends most of his time in Durham, North Carolina, but he hails from Pittsburgh. He is working on a collection of stories called Sylvan Caravan that feasts upon the splendors and oddities of rural Appalachia and will spend part of the 2018 summer completing a screenplay, Codeine, with his brother and writing accomplice, Will Sutherland. He cites Robin Pecknold, Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt, Breece Pancake, Pinckney Benedict, and Flannery O'Connor as heroes and influences.

Heather McAdams