There was no reason for us to believe there would be diesel in the tank. We’d watched that mill decay since childhood, heard unemployed and under-employed fathers throw back six-packs and curse its existence. Why would the crane have still had juice?
It seemed comical to watch Edith scamper up the substructure of the crane and do her goofy little dance at the top. But being Edith, she had to take things a step farther, and that’s when it all went down. She hopped into the cab and set right to jabbing buttons, pulling levers, kicking at the foot pedals. She sat down in the operator’s stool and waved. That’s when Jake noticed it.
“Did you guys hear something?”
We did—the rumble of an engine, followed shortly by a god awful guttural groaning. The sound of gears turning.
I flailed my arms in warning, but she couldn’t see a thing. Sam and Jake screamed at me to stop when I launched myself up the ladder, leapt into the cab where Edith was frozen in place, her eyes open wide and her skin somehow even paler than normal—even her freckles seemed to have gone white. That’s when I did what any teenaged would-be hero must: I slammed every button I could find, including the big red joystick in the middle. In hindsight, that’s one I should’ve avoided. But somewhere in the frenzy of my motion, I whacked it, jarred it to the right. It stuck. The hulking machine turned clockwise, slowly at first, but by the end of the first revolution it was already moving at a good clip.
Edith unfroze long enough to say, “Jump?”
We grabbed each other’s hand and did just that. We cleared the cab, tumbled onto the platform, and then hurried down a rusty ladder to the ground. The cab spun in faster circles. The crane arm, its cable, and the attached hook became a giant whip—a wrecking ball. It hit a small coal shed first—that ramshackle job of rebar and corrugated steel sheets stood no chance. The hook broadsided the main coke oven and must’ve struck dead on a main beam, because that building, the most recognizable piece of our miserable little city, trembled for about ten seconds, and then collapsed on itself. I followed my friends toward the street, not yet feeling the cuts, scrapes and bruises I’d gathered in my fall. Behind our backs, we heard a crash—a small section of the conveyor lines crashing into the Ohio.
When we reached the abandoned Norfolk-Southern yard, we all stood there breathless, terrified, accidentally triumphant. Jake wore the biggest grin I’d ever seen on him, and Sam just stared blankly. Though I never saw him with a joint, I suspect that Sam was either perpetually stoned or deeply frayed, emotionally. In that moment, though, he was blank with awe. Edith and I looked at each other, wide-eyed, then surveyed our handiwork as we tried to capture our breath.
“Dude,” Jake said. “You two just destroyed New Boston.”
Of course, we hadn’t—we’d just destroyed the part of New Boston that had destroyed the rest of New Boston. But that was good enough. Much better than our normal Tuesday routine, which involved splitting a six-pack of generic soda and chucking rocks from the bluff-top high school parking lot.
We would later swear that we presided over our triumph until the first of the plant’s stacks tipped over and came hurtling directly at us. In reality, it was the sound of approaching sirens that prompted retreat. Running, I thought of my father’s face the night he came home and sat down as if nothing had happened. His eyes were so blank and empty that night, his face pale and expressionless. He shut the blinds then slumped all night on the sofa and stared at the black television screen —he never used to shut those blinds, so I knew something was bad wrong. Later that night when I snuck out of bed and peeked through them, I saw, for the first time, what the nighttime skyline looked like without a pilot light blazing,. He never looked the same to me after that night. The color never fully returned to his face, the life never completely returned to his eyes. So as I hurdled pieces of wreckage, I smiled for him. I smiled for all the fathers and families whose trajectories were mutilated by this place. I imagined that if Dad had known this would be so easy, he’d have swigged a longneck or five and climbed into that crane himself, years earlier.
We thought it was over—we didn’t expect the aftershock. It must’ve been the sudden resumption of motion at the long-dormant site, all that stored up energy hidden down in the sooty dirt, and we’d set it loose. We reached the top of the hill, our normal roost, just in time to see the first stack fall, right across the rail lines where we’d stood ten minutes earlier. Edith’s eyes got all wide, and Sam gave Jake a big oh, shit look.
A few seconds later, as if waiting for the cue of our full attention, the easternmost stack crumbled. The center stack, the tallest one, wavered for a few seconds, like a great middle finger, flipping one last bird at the town before it collapsed on itself.
“Shit, dude,” Sam said, his tone even-keeled and bored as ever. “Shit.”
Jake faced Edith, grabbed her by the belt, pulled her against him, wrapped his arm around her back and kissed her. After a few seconds of frantic slurping, Jake let her go, staggered backward, said, “You are a god.”
A couple hours later, we were screwing around in the Dollar General, avoiding our homes—we looked fine to each other but knew our parents would take one look at us and know it was all our fault.
“They’re looking for you, you know.” The clerk—I couldn’t remember her name, she’d quit coming to school earlier in the year—said this very matter-of-factly.
“For what?” Jake asked.
The clerk just laughed at him.
He stepped forward and placed his hands on the counter as if he was going to intimidate her. “How the hell do they know?”
She pointed at the police scanner, turned on low behind the counter.
“Somebody saw you running, told the cops,” the girl said, then she smiled. “Take some gum on your way out. On me.”
I grabbed a pack of Winterfresh, but put it back when no one else took any.
Around the corner at Wippy Dip, the manager leaned through the service window and gave us a thumbs-up.
“How the hell do these people even know who we are?” I whispered to Edith. “And who told?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it’d help if you didn’t look so guilty. Stop looking guilty.” I guess she could tell it was striking me right then that we were about to be in it deep over what we’d done, so she playfully smacked my shoulder to take the edge off her remark. It didn’t work.
Meanwhile, Jake was stalking up to the window like he does when he’s pissed. He looked like he was about to deck the poor burger guy, and so we stopped to see what would happen. Jake leaned forward, and what we wouldn’t have given to hear what he said then, but when he turned around a minute later, he had an armful of burgers and fries. “Our reward,” he said, and we took over a picnic table.
“What about drinks?” Sam asked.
“That’s just greedy,” Jake said. “Shut up and eat your fries.”
I didn’t understand how they could just sit and eat like that, out in public, in the middle of everything. We were wanted—people were out there searching for us, and someone already taken the liberty of ratting us out. I managed about five bites of food; while they joked around and told stories about gym class, I focused most of my energy on repressing vomit.
Later on, Jake told us to follow him, which kind of went without saying. We followed him most of the time as it was, but the rest of us were particularly okay with following in this instance, since he was the only one with experience running from anything. We hung back for a moment when he strolled through the door of the Brass Pony Club. A second later, he stuck his head out the door and waved us in. None of us was eighteen, and we were all broke. It took about five minutes for us to realize that a strip club was a really dumb place to be with empty pockets and a preexisting guilt complex, so we filed right back out. Still, we’d been inside, and we were pretty certain that would carry some nice lunchroom cred. On the way out, a manager with a lopsided goatee shook our hands, congratulated us and said, “Make sure y’all come see us again when you get out.”
Sam flipped him off, and the bouncer chuckled, but we still walked a little faster. Once we’d cleared the block, Jake pointed toward the river. “Bridge?” he asked.
“Bridge,” Sam confirmed, and we made for the riverfront, scaled the overland tresswork of the L&N Railroad Bridge. Despite red-lettered Beware signs posted everywhere, it was perfectly safe to climb. It was more or less abandoned. The coal trains coming up from Kentucky had gotten so long and so heavy they had to cross the gleaming new reinforced bridge east of Huntington—New Boston wasn’t even a viable shortcut.
Jake reached back to help Edith up, but she climbed onto the deck herself, scrambling with a hilarious, frantic leg kick. Even through the deck was solid, we balanced on the rails—it just seemed the right way to cross. We stopped midway and sat, dangled legs out over the river. We gazed back at town, at the new skyline we’d created.
“Looks even more dead,” Sam said.
“Just looks honest,” Jake said.
The front tip of a downbound barge crept under the bridge, empty—its great open bins waiting for their next load of coal or ore. Sam searched the deck for a suitable rock, then launched a golf ball-sized hunk of limestone at the barge. For a good ten seconds, it danced and pinged around the hopper. A crewman ran out of the pilothouse, to investigate the sound, to determine whether it was the bridge falling apart, or the barge. Sam whistled and waved at the man, who aimed his light at us and then waved back. We saw the quick flick of a lighter and then the glowing pinprick that every few seconds swung an arc between his hip and his lips, until the barge started its swing around the bend and he dropped his cig, ran into the cabin to fetch the rest of the crew. A few seconds later, his silhouette reemerged, pointing out the newly flat riverfront.
The bridge was the only point from which New Boston had ever really looked like a city, and only at night when the functionless shells of buildings stood in for all the nothingness that was really there. For the first time that night, we got to see our town for what we really knew it to be. Behind us, to the east, twin halos of light that marked Ashland and Huntington were reassuring reminders that there are places that don’t mind being lit, that don’t mind being seen.
“You see that?” Edith asked.
She pointed toward the bank. Through the gaps where infrastructure once stood, a couple flashlight beams bounced off windows and guardrails near the plant entrance.
“That’s for us?” Jake asked.
I nodded. “Imagine so.”
Sam grinned a little sheepishly.
“We’re celebrities,” Jake said.
I shook my head. “No. They’re just bored. What else does anyone have to do on a Tuesday?”
“Either way,” Sam said, “they’re going to catch us.”
“No shit,” Jake said. “But it’s worth it, right?”
Nobody answered him—we all just sat there and stared at our handiwork. I looked at Sam on my right, at Jake and Edith on my left, and imagined this moment was the pinnacle for us, that we would look back on that moment in much the same way our classmates might remember a particular high school football game, or being crowned homecoming queen, or having their first intentional kid. As good as it gets. I knew Sam and Jake and Edith had no particular plans to leave town, and even though I assumed I’d eventually move on, it seemed in that moment highly unlikely that any event in my life could ever top that night. And for the moment, that was okay—as far as seminal moments go, I could’ve done worse. I decided it would make for the sort of story that would someday cause my kids to grimace while I told my grandkids about it in brutal, exaggerated detail. Nothing against the traditional pinnacles of highschoolness, but ours was much cooler than playing a game in tight pants or spending a couple of hours in a plastic crown.
Sam chucked one last rock into the river, and we watched the resulting rings spread out and diffuse, then stood in wordless unison, balanced the rail back to shore, and started toward the residential district.
When we turned the corner onto Sycamore, a cop car waited in Jake’s driveway—his dad leaned on the cruiser, smoking and having a laugh with the men who sought his son. Jake’s face turned a familiar shade of red, and I grabbed onto his wrist, pulled him backward. It wasn’t going to do us any good if he socked his old man, right in front of a cop. We made for the apartment complex where Edith’s mother lived, but a city cop was smoking in the stairwell. By this point, lights were making us jumpy so we headed for Sam’s through dimmer alleys. A sheriff leaned on his cruiser, which was blocking the driveway, as if we were going to run the blockade in our non-existent cars. My place was farthest away, and the unspoken hope was that no one had bothered to check there. They must’ve been out of police cars, because, honest to God, a fire truck sat in the driveway. Mom and Dad stood on the porch with arms folded. Mom was clearly crying. Dad had his arm wrapped around her, and he looked furious. I hadn’t really wanted to go home—we were following Jake fairly blindly by that point—and that sight reinforced my instinct.
Of all the people who could’ve spotted us, it was one of the firemen who spotted shouted and pointed as we ducked below the fence line. We bolted, still hunched over so they wouldn’t see our heads over the fence. For a moment, we tried to keep up with Jake, but he had too much experience with this sort of thing took off into a stand of trees; we couldn’t keep up. When turned and paused to wait for us, Edith was the only one who made the effort to continue. Sam just shook his head and walked back toward downtown. I shrugged and stayed put. “Suit yourselves,” Jake said, “Good luck.”
I waited for a moment, watched them make their slow-motion getaways, toward hiding places amongst empty buildings and burnt-out streetlights. I suppose theirs was the logical choice, but I wasn’t going to waste that night hiding. I went back to the mill.
I felt like it should be hard work getting there, and so I slipped along the brick wall of an abandoned upholstery shop, then got cute and decided to scale a fence with action-flick speed. Thank God Dad insisted on buying us cheap jeans. I’d have been stuck hanging upside-down if they hadn’t torn so damn easily. As it turned out, I was suspended just an instant—not even long enough to extend my arms and buffer the impact—before I plunged squarely on my head. The resulting bump, along with some mild blackening of the left eye, looked completely badass in my mug shot. It hurt less than the realization, when I stood and looked around, that absolutely no one was following me.
I used a bit more care when I hopped the limp barbed wire and re-entered the crime scene. I picked up the first blunt object that didn’t seem likely to tear open my palms, scaled the nearest pile of rubble. I was done keeping quiet and holding back. When I lifted that slim stripe of heavy-gauge pipe over my head ready for that first strike, I felt more powerful than I’d managed to in seventeen previous years, probably combined. As I set my shoulder muscles into motion and sent the hollow rod screaming downward, I thought of everything else that could have possibly destroyed this place—a swollen Ohio, an explosive mishap, an earth-scorching blast at the uranium enrichment plant a few miles inland or downstream at the nuclear power station. But we had done it. We had taken down the mill, and I wanted to kick it while it was down.
The pipe was crummy as a destructive tool, but even the smallest crack in a piece of concrete, or the divorce of a few long-mortared bricks felt cathartic. When I struck, the pipe pinged and then reverberated the way my Little League bat had the day I forgot to pack batting gloves for practice. This time, I didn’t complain. It was painful and clunky, but still gave more satisfaction than my truest of hits the day Dad handed me a nine iron at the driving range.
“World’s best way to blow off stress,” he had said, then clobbered a shot off the 150-yard sign. Until the night at the mill, I believed him.
I thought of Dad, too, as I whacked away a piece of foundation, and I knew it had to be the providence of his spirit when I found a real, honest-to-God sledgehammer, resting right out in open space, rusted, halfway sunk in a patch of mud, and practically begging to be used again. When I made my first solid contact with that monster—God, it felt amazing, as if the world slowed as I swung so that I could feel each vein pulse and each muscle fire in a quickening chain from my legs to hips, then through my back and shoulders and arms until the hammer hit concrete and all my force and momentum stopped and my whole body shook, my fingers trembled and I saw the crumbled piece of mess I’d made out of something once solid. It seemed as if the sledgehammer had been invented for just such a moment, as if I were the lone person who would ever feel the instrument’s proper use. I took my new implement to the highest point of the tallest rubble pile I could find, and started bashing it down from the top. It was up there that I first had the sensation of not being alone. All the way on the other side of the mess we’d made, down by the barge dock, I swore I heard another sound, another rhythmic clink. I imagined another figure lifting, dropping, destroying, hoisting.
I moved toward the sound and thought that maybe it was a cop, or maybe one of the others, Jake or Sam or Edith, struck with the same idea. Then it struck me that it could be my father, a solitary form hammering away, helping put the death-knell to this place. I stopped and smiled at this idea, imagined his taut back and broad shoulders covered in flannel, hoisting the red-handled pick axe that most nights rested on a hook above the garage workbench. I imagined how he’d look as I stepped up and joined him, stood at his side. He would give me a goofy, kidlike grin, like the ones he used to wear before that night—and put his arm around my shoulder.
“You wrecked this shit,” he would say, and then we would stand and destroy together, take out our aggression on that hollow place.
But of course, when I got there, the sound was just the clinking of a piece of chain against a flagpole, jostled rhythmically by the wind. I surveyed the ground for a moment, disappointed my daydream had been just that. Dad was sitting home, pissed-off and waiting for me to sneak in the back door or to be led through the front, comforting Mom, and marinating the months’ worth of icy glares and angry remarks that were coming my way.
I took aim at the nearest building I could find and leveled the hammer, swung it until my arms were too spent to lift once more. Even then, I tried again and got it only a foot off the ground before the whole thing, handle and all, plunked harmlessly next to my sneaker. I never felt the pain until I stopped, but in that instant when I resolved my work was done, each finger, both palms throbbed and ached with brutal force. Brick dust and concrete dust, and plain old dirt dust were caked onto the film of blood that had apparently coated my hands. My ribs, my back, my legs, my head—everything throbbed and ached. The tips of my fingers tingled and would not stop; as much as I hated that feeling, I focused on it because in that moment, it was the least awful sensation I felt.
I wanted to keep the hammer with me as a sort of memento, but knew wherever I was headed when morning came, I wouldn’t be allowed to bring it along. So I left it where it lay and once more scaled the fence. This time, each link tore into broken, encrusted hands—but it was worthwhile excruciation. I left the mill grounds, crossed the street, and climbed the crumbling stairway up to the high school parking lot. The football stadium was unlocked, and so I let myself in, climbed the bleacher steps two at a time, and scaled the press box.
I looked out at the dark field before me. This is where Dad had taken me the day after the plant closed. Longing for redemption or hope, a record crowd showed up to watch Wheelersburg run the score to 56-3 before their coach sent in his scrubs with three minutes left. Perched at our regular spot, bleacher seats 18 and 19 in Row G overlooking the 40-yard-line, I sat next to my father and watched him weep like a baby. He tried like hell to kill those tears, wiping them away with a flannel sleeve. But the sleeve was still full of fly ash from the mill, and it just irritated his eyes and increased the general wetness of the moment. I sat there and watched the slump-shouldered footballers sulking to the locker room. I tried to stare at girls in cheer skirts, at newspapermen popping off shots as fast as they could wind their film. Finally, I gave up the distractions and put my arm around Dad. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. And it was the saddest damn thing I’ve ever seen.
The night we took down the mill, I sat up there alone, waited for someone to come after me, watched for motion down below. I looked for signs that anyone cared. I fell asleep waiting.
Brooks Rexroat lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he teaches at Xavier University. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and his work has appeared in such publications as The Montreal Review, Subtle Fiction, and Weave Magazine. Visit him online at http://www.brooksrexroat.com.