John got fired on a Tuesday. Laid off, technically, because the foreman said all the right things when he called John into his office. It was an important distinction, the foreman said. John heard all the sound go out of the mill, or at least get far off, like someone had thrown a blanket to smother it. He noticed how clean the foreman’s fingernails were, realized that the muffled sound was because the windows in the office were so thick.
John had read somewhere that companies usually did this shit on Fridays. That way whatever sad sack it was getting fired had the weekend to calm down and maybe get some sleep. Decide that charging red-eyed and half-drunk into work the next day wouldn’t do any good. But the mill had been running on Saturdays for a while now, and in Braddock everyone was expecting it, anyway.
When steel stopped turning a profit a while ago, everyone saw checkmate and walked away. 25,000 people became 2,500, and the shadows had been lengthening toward the corners ever since, the gears grinding slower and slower toward an unceremonious stop. John had only lasted this long because his dad had been foreman back in the day. As he drove home, he understood for the first time that his whole life had been lived in the eye-blinked extinguishing of a dream. His truck idled at a stoplight and the pencil-sketch gray town spread out below him.
He hoped that Rosie would be devastated. That she’d fall weeping into his arms, get her snot on his flannel sleeve; that he’d be able to see the panic in her eyes when she thought about the two of them, plus Brady, their son, trying to make it on her high school teacher’s salary. But when he told her that night in the kitchen—him clearing the table, her elbows deep in hot water at the sink—she’d just cut the water and taken a long breath while she wiped her pink hands and forearms.
Well that’s a setback, huh? She managed a little smile at him. Are you all right?
The cabinets behind her head looked dingy; rusty-hinged, the off-white color sickly in the yellow light of the kitchen. Outside the window, the wind rustled the overgrown grass in the front yard of their former neighbor’s former house.
Yeah, sure, he said.
When she hugged him, her face felt warm in his chest, and he could smell the dishwater in the bottom strands of her blonde hair. He was overcome with the desire to be somewhere, anywhere other than where he was, like his organs had already jumped out and were somewhere outside in the falling dark waiting for him to catch up.
He walked through a drizzle to The Evening News for a shot of whiskey and a tall boy. When he was a kid, when his dad was foreman, Mom would send John down around dinner to fetch him from there. It’d be nothing but steel workers, and he’d always find his dad buying drinks for the pipefitters or sitting with the blast furnace crew, sweating.
Now the place was empty, like most everything in town. John could still pick out the steel workers he knew by name, and even those he didn’t, by their gaunt but muscly frames, their narrowed eyes, their skin blasted and singed permanent shades of off-red and black. At the corner tables, a group of artists here for the free studio space being rented in some of the closed mills talked and laughed with their hands. Under the low-hanging light, they were all color: the slick pools of whitewashed light in their greased back hair, red and green tattoos drooling out of their rolled up sleeves, flecks of orange and purple paint on the knees of their rolled jeans and black boots. The mayor said art was the vanguard of the new Braddock. And the workers left straggled out of the machine every night to sit spectral in The Evening News. Even Martha, who’d been tending bar since his dad came in, looked gray in the fluorescence of the fridge as she grabbed his beer.
Five, she told him, pouring the whiskey.
He was digging in his wallet when Dave Fetterman said I got this one, Martha from behind him and slid into the stool next to him.
John knew Dave from way back, when Dave had worked the mill with Dad. He was 18 when he moved up from Tennessee during the boom, but he still had that drawl, that way of sitting a certain way in a bar stool and letting the world wash over him. He was in his 60s now, with massive forearms, one of which he draped over John’s shoulders. The hand that he’d burned years ago hung by John’s cheek, shaking a little, with crisscrossed lines of hardened scar tissue. John remembered his Dad coming home that day after spending the afternoon at the hospital; the smell of burnt flesh faint on his clothes, the way his body felt hotter when he’d hugged John, like he’d absorbed all the fire himself.
So you heard? John asked.
Yeah, I did.
Dave didn’t have any family, and drank like it. By the time John was half done with his beer, there was glaze creeping into Dave’s eyes as he examined his fourth shot and took it down. Seniority didn’t make a lick of sense, John thought. Dave was here when it boomed, when cars rolled over the hills the same way the white smoke did out of the blast furnace, getting dense and then expanding outward. Now Dave lived in Homestead, where the mill had been turned into a shopping mall. No family, no house in town, and he got to keep his job while John got cut loose.
You made it this far, though, Dave said. That’s something.
Didn’t do me a whole lotta good.
You want my advice?
John didn’t, but raised his eyebrows anyway.
Learn something else, Dave said. This shit here is dying.
Easy to say—John started.
Nah, not because just that, either. I’m saying, how many left at Edgar Thomson after these cuts?
Yeah, me either. So I’m there, big deal. It’s a slow leak. Pretty soon we’re all gonna be where you’re at now. Maybe it’s you got the head start, I don’t know.
Dave coughed, and it made a sound like something inside him shredding. John remembered his Dad’s funeral, lung cancer, and all the millers outside the church after in shirts and ties wrinkled or ill fitting, smoking with somber looks on their faces. He grabbed his jacket off the bar.
Thanks for the drink, Dave.
Dave raised a finger and shook it a little in John’s direction, nodded to no one at the bar.
It had stopped raining when John walked home. The moonlight was puddling in the street, giving it a silver glow, and the breeze off the Monongahela had pushed the leaves into grimy piles near the gutters. He could smell the water that was trickling down into the sewers and the faint vapor outline of his own breath in front of him. Their house was the last on Garden Street, a two-story red brick box near the bottom of a hill. A chain link fence ran diagonally down the hill in front of it and a small passageway was all that separated it from the house next door. Up near the roof, where the soffits of the two houses almost touched, he could see he and Rosie’s light on in the bedroom.
He climbed into bed with all his clothes on and curled up next to her. She rolled over and took his head in her hands, and he’d never felt so useless in his entire life.
Brady went to Jermaine’s after practice. He’s going to stay there tonight.
He nodded. She looked at him in that way she had, like if she opened her eyes a little wider she could see a little deeper.
We’re not leaving, right? We’re going to be fine.
It was part of the reason he married her. Her quiet fight, her heels always dug in. Of course they weren’t leaving. She had one of the most secure jobs in the city, and Brady was quarterbacking the football team, who hadn’t lost in three years now. At his games, scouts in polo shirts and visors hunched over their clipboards and jotted notes. He’d even seen one from Pitt last week. But past that, where would they go? In the last house on an empty street in a valley town, he forced a smile back at her.
We’re home, he said.
There used to be all you needed here: four supermarkets, gas pumping from the Get Go’s on the corners, couple of movie theaters, a rec center where John went after school to shoot pool and baskets when it wasn’t football season. Dad got home from work, or he and John walked back from Evening News and ate pork chops and mashed potatoes for dinner. When dad had a Sunday off, they watched the Steelers and went out for dinner if they won. They’d go throw the football in the dying light of the backyard, the red and white lights of the mill glittering in front of the silhouette of the smokestacks, the incessant plumes of smoke shadows that congregated over the black water of the river in the distance.
Now John was paralyzed. For three weeks he’d been on the couch, drinking whiskey out of a dirty glass, or stretching out and turning away from the TV, burying his face in the back cushions and trying to coax a nap out of his subconscious. All the while he felt consumed by a quickening in his heartbeat, or he’d stare at his hands until he was sure that he saw his pinky finger start to shake. He breathed in on a count of four, held it for a count of four, out for a count of four, hold for a count of four. During one of the safety trainings at the mill they’d told the workers that it was a way to regulate your heartbeat during times of shock.
Sleep never came. Instead, he closed his eyes and Braddock floated up, sun-soaked on an ancient day he could never place. Black cars glinted in the intersections and gave the whole scene a liquid sheen like a photograph just removed from developing chemicals. Or he went back further to the stories his dad had told him about the Homestead strike in 1892. He saw the brick wall they’d built to keep the union workers out when they shut the mill down, heard the crackle of canvas and straw catching fire when the union hanged and burned Carnegie in effigy. He felt himself surrounded on all sides by dead-eyed workers suddenly alive and armed, quiet but for the nervous shuffling on their boots in dirt as they braced for the militia attack that would eventually break them.
After he’d laid still for what seemed like hours, he could feel everything inside of him grinding to a stop, the sound of bone on bone grating together, the hiss of a last gasp somewhere. But when he stood, the fact that he had nowhere to be overwhelmed him again and he’d look around at the light screaming through the drawn blinds and feel his knees go weak and sink back into the thin cushions. Dave called a few times, told him about maybe some work in McKeesport or a crew needed help cleaning up vacants in Homestead, but John never followed up like he promised he would.
Rosie was watching John eat. For weeks she had filled the empty air at the dinner table with idle chatter about her days at the school. Or she and Brady had whole conversations without once looking at John picking at his food. He’d lost 15 pounds since he’d been home. But now he could feel her eyes on him, smell the soap on Brady, who’d showered and come right down after practice. It was all making him very nauseous, and he set his spoonful of chicken and rice back in the bowl and closed his eyes.
How’d it go today?
He and Rosie hadn’t been talking as much recently, and when they did she always asked if he was close to finding work. He didn’t mind that, but there was always something tentative in her voice when she asked, like she was talking to a stranger.
Same as it always does. There’s nothing out there.
Where have you been looking? Maybe it doesn’t have to be in the mills, you know. Anyone could see your record there and know that you’d work your ass off for them.
John was sick of the questions. He couldn’t explain it to her, so he raised his shaking hands to his face and rubbed his eyes. Then he turned them out toward her.
I make things. Always have. And now, they don’t want me to, because there’s nothing left to make.
Don’t say that, Dad. Brady was looking down at his food, and seemed like he wanted to say something else, but no words came.
You need to get out of the house, John, Rosie said, glancing over at Brady. It’s like you’re just drying up here. Dave Fetterman called me at work the other day and said he’s been trying to find you a job but you won’t call any of the people he says.
John thought of Dave sitting alone in his empty fucking house worrying about shit that didn’t concern him. Reaching out into the world to catch a finger on something he could call his own. The depression of it made him crazy.
Maybe you should mind your fucking business and leave me to mine, huh?
Rosie’s eyes got big when he said it, and then she cocked an eyebrow, waiting for an apology. But John didn’t regret saying it yet.
Dad, chill out.
Brady’s voice was steady, but his face was fear. He hadn’t ever had to stand up to John before, but now it had happened and he had no clue what to do now. John left them both frozen there, walked into the other room and sunk into the couch.
He was still there five hours later, the muted local news flickering images of the mayor in a garden they were creating downtown. Behind him, the boarded up grocery store, missing a few letters from its sign, loomed. Rosie plopped down next to him.
Supposedly they want kids from the schools to work in it. Under supervision, of course. They’re gonna give the harvest to people around town who need it.
John nodded, but didn’t say anything. Rosie turned on the couch to face him.
I don’t know what you’re going through, John. I want to, but I don’t, because you seem to want to go it alone. Fine. But you can’t talk to me like that anymore. If you do, you’re gonna wake up one morning and we won’t be here anymore. Got me?
He nodded again, without looking at her, and she got off the couch and made her way back up the stairs.
John woke up with a panic exploding in his chest, his eyes firing open, like the entire world had been happening while he slept and only the door closing on it all had woken him. He could hear a bird outside the window, but the house was still, dust swirling in a silent shaft of diagonal sunlight in the middle of the room. He picked himself off the couch and went upstairs for the first time in longer than he could remember, to the bathroom in what was lately just Rosie’s room. The smell of soap lingered, and there were half-circles of evaporating fog in the corners of the mirror still. He stood over her dresser in the bedroom for a full five seconds before pulling open the middle drawer. Same in Brady’s room, and he swayed there, breathing, when he found them both still full of clothes.
In the garage he found a shovel and can of black spray paint and took them both into the backyard with him. He painted a square, 10 feet by 10 feet, as close to the middle of the yard as he could figure. It wasn’t quite Winter yet, but still he had to all but jump on the shovel before he felt it slicing clean through the sod and into the earth beneath. All morning he stomped and pried and threw chunks of grass into a pile over his shoulder. The sun was out in full, and it glinted on invisible fulcrums in the acrid air. He worked through lunch, stopping only to remove his heavy coat or to fetch a pair of nubuck gloves from a dusty corner of the cabinet in the garage. The tree in the backyard rustled listlessly in the breeze and in the distance smoke churned endlessly in silence.
When Rosie got home, she stood on the small deck in the backyard and watched him without saying anything. From where he was, about three feet deep in the yard, he was looking up at the curious face she was making: the skin around her eyes pulled back, mouth just a little open, hair swept into a bun that sat high on her head. Her arms were crossed in front of her, shoulders drawn against the cold. He set the shovel on the grass in front of him and smiled, his dry lips feeling like they were going to crack. She raised an eyebrow at him, and when he waved at her, she shook her head and cracked a half-smile in spite of herself, before going back inside.
By dark he was four feet deep, and he left the shovel in the hole and went inside. The kitchen table was empty, but Rosie had Saran-wrapped a plate for him and left it on the table. He reheated it in the microwave and held his body as still as he could, letting the swollen feeling of his body defrosting wash over him. While he ate, he made a list of supplies: 28 two by fours, long nails, 10 feet of aluminum pipe, one metal barrel, jugs of water, cans of soup, protein bars.
Rosie was asleep by the time he made it upstairs. The green digital glow of the alarm clock gave her skin a sickly tone, and he climbed into bed next to her and felt his body dissipate, like someone were pulling his bones slowly, painlessly, through his skin until he hung as limp as the sheets pulled up around his chin. His hands ached, and despite the gloves he’d worn, he could feel blisters filling up at the bottoms of his fingers. He smiled to himself in the dark.
It felt good to be in a routine again. John woke when Rosie did and brushed his teeth in the billowing steam while she took a shower. He made a pot of coffee for her and one for himself that he poured into a thermos for later. While Rosie ate and Brady moved sleepy-eyed through the house, filling his backpack and duffel, John scratched sketches onto a piece of graph paper. For days, Rosie and Brady hadn’t said much to him, though he could feel their intense looks. Now, they made small talk and their mouths smiled while their eyes filled up with questions that neither ever voiced. Every day, John saw them off and went to the backyard with his thermos and shovel. The last leaves on the trees grew heavy and fell all at once around him, covered the yard in a foliate sunset that crunched and crumbled when he ground his boots into it. Sometimes he dug all day, shedding layers of clothes and pushing his tongue over his top lip to spear a drop of refreshing, salty sweat. Other times he coaxed his old truck to a start and sat in the house while it warmed up. From there, in the morning fog, the headlights obliterated the heavy layers of atmospheric gray and the truck coughed and coughed until it hummed and seemed to echo down the deserted street. He sipped his coffee and felt like the only person in the world.
The world wasn’t ending. He drove through downtown, past the boarded up apartments on Main, their numbers spray painted in orange on the red brick, past the boys on the corners who’d long since ditched school and glared at him from under parka hoods, past walls the artists had tagged with the mayor’s blessing, everything from pastoral landscapes in front of the mill, to block-lettered “got milk?” on one of the plywood windows of the abandoned grocery, to a silhouette staring up at a sky full of stars.
He went to the lumberyard near Lawrenceville to have two by fours cut, which he spent the afternoon nailing together into skeleton walls, flexing and blowing into his hands in the cold, his breath evaporating in his fist and leaving it damp.
When Brady sauntered out of the back door of the house, John took a minute to enjoy how Brady didn’t look much like him anymore. He had a soft and clear face and shaggy blonde hair, like his mom, visible under the low hang of his hoodie. He had muscles, but they were lean and sinewy, built to move. John’s own felt knotted and stiff inside him, like tree roots.
Give me a hand with this, will ya? John said when we saw Brady lingering by the porch, looking at him. I’ve got these walls made, but I can’t get them down there myself.
Brady looked uncertain at first, looking back over his shoulder, but jogged into the garage and returned wearing a pair of gardening gloves.
So this is some sort of shelter? He was leaned out over the hole, looking in.
Yeah, John said, what do you think?
Brady laughed, and John felt a twang of disappointment.
It’s awesome, Dad. What we need a shelter for though? End of the world?
John looked at him mock-cryptically. You never know, he said, and laughed. Maybe a storm? Tornado, something like that?
He wasn’t surprised that he couldn’t think of a really good reason. Maybe that was why he’d been working so feverishly the whole time: because he knew if he stopped he’d have to reach into the emptiness for something he knew wasn’t there.
Brady shrugged his shoulders and considered John’s answer. Good point, he said.
They lowered the walls into the hole, and stood there panting in the fading light, removing their gloves and squeezing the palms of their hands, cracking their knuckles.
You nervous about the playoffs?
Brady shrugged again. We ought to win, I know, but yeah, a little bit.
Good, John said. I’d be worried if you weren’t. You’ll be fine, though.
Yeah, Brady said, and shoved his hands into the pocket of his sweatshirt.
There would be more scouts in the stands at sectionals, John knew, but he didn’t want to ask Brady about that. He didn’t tell him, either, that he couldn’t wait to see him leave somewhere for school. That he deserved it.
Out of an empty metal barrel, John made a stove. He cut a square out of the side and fixed a grate to the back wall. Under that, he piled smoking chips and charcoal. He cut a hole in the top of the barrel, and fastened the aluminum pipe he’d bought by sticking it down into the hole and cutting slits in the bottom, so that he could flatten out edges and shoot nails through them with a nail gun. For now it stuck above ground level when he ran it up through the top opening, but it could always be cut down later. He wished Brady were there with him, but Brady was too busy with pre-game spaghetti dinners at teammate’s houses, pep rallies, all the before-hand to running over McKeesport in the first round and Clairton in the semis. John was at both games, scooted to the front of his seat, clapping his gloves together to make a hollow echo in the air in front of him. Everyone who had stayed in Braddock turned out for the games. Even the hoods that spent most of their time slinging loitered by the fence behind the corner of the end zone with their hands shoved deep in the pockets of their coats.
Rosie sat next to John, orange Braddock hoodie pulled up over her head. It felt good to be on the same page, John thought. To be sitting here together in the cold cheering for the same things. They still didn’t talk much, and when she did look right at him, there was still that injured mixture of anger and desperation. Pretty soon Brady would be off at college somewhere and the two of them would be left in the house, finally forced to decide between each other and silence.
It was snowing when John finished the shelter, sliding deadbolt-sized spikes through the overlapped hinges of the door to hold it all together. The door rested on the chimney when opened, and he’d tied a string to the bottom of it, so that it could be pulled closed behind him. With one hand on the ladder, he leaned out and over the room as he climbed down, shining the LED lantern he’d ordered online over each corner: the food, the stove, the ladder, the folding chairs, all bathed in an icy blue light. He opened one of the chairs and set the lamp on the top of the stove. It was warm and still, and the air felt damp, like it might be turning to droplets. He could just hear the wind whipping above, faint like a teakettle a couple rooms over. Rummaging through the food supplies in the corner he found a bottle of lighter fluid and signed in his name on the top of the charcoal before tossing a match in. With no wind, the flames swelled without issue and he cut the lamp to sit in the dull orange glow, listen to the hollow crackle almost echoing in the plastic bubble silence of the shelter.
One Christmas when he was a small kid, it’d snowed a solid foot between when John fell asleep and when he unwrapped a football the next morning and convinced his parents to go outside to play. Mom never came out back with him, and it was strange and pretty to see her lingering in the background in a pale pink coat and red mittens, rubbing her upper arms to stay warm. His dad hadn’t worn any gloves, despite the snow, and there were little crystals of ice between his red fingers when he reached out for the ball and told John to run a post.
Everything was covered in snow, and when John caught the pass the only way he could tell he was running was by the wind on his face. Otherwise, it was just layers and layers of white, not moving. A couple steps from the end zone he felt his dad’s hands under his armpits and his feet lift off the ground. He was being turned, angled toward a drift near the corner of the end zone. It seemed like forever that he was up there, falling but not knowing it yet.
Eventually, he made his way back up the ladder and out the door, and he stood in the yard watching the smoke come out of the little chimney. It didn’t billow, just trickled out in thread shapes that warped when they hit wind, like cigarette smoke through parted lips. He turned to the house and could see the kitchen light on.
He knew Rosie was inside, moving slow and silent through the house in her orange hoodie, gathering the Braddock blanket they’d had since forever, filling their thermoses with something hot, probably adding a nip of vodka to hers. He thought maybe he could hear his truck idling on the street in front of the house. He’d have to climb back down into the shelter and extinguish the fire, but for a few moments he let himself stand there in the yard with a little snow falling into his hair and melting, and imagined just leaving it. How it would feel to be in the truck on the way to the game, or to the grocery store, or to an interview, or, eventually, another job, and know that in his backyard there was a shelter, and a small fire was burning.