Cincinnati Steam Shovel Blues

Machinery daunted him, levers, gears, and all those moving parts, but Nester needed the work. After three days on the job, the longest stretch he had worked in one place for the past year, he finally settled in on a contraption the folks in salvage called a steam shovel. It was something they’d pieced together from a hodgepodge of spare parts, and as they were apt to do, salvage boasted of their success in bringing the thing to life.

Its boiler tank had been yanked off a driller in the salvage pit, apparently the only part on that rig not twisted up or fused together by a powder blast. The winch and steam engine they’d plucked off a rail tractor, and the axles and rims came from an ancient gasoline-powered truck excavated from the quarry bottoms. But her guts, they told him, the boom, crane and bucket, and all her pulleys, came from a Cincinnati steam shovel, probably the same kind their ancestors used to dig out the Great Quarry. It was equipment so well forged, they claimed, that, not only was it still salvageable after three hundred years in a rust heap, but the recognizable symbol of the Cincinnati Man stamped on every piece kept the company legend alive centuries after its demise. Every time Nester jerked back the boom handle and dropped the bucket for a scoop of soil, seeing that faded logo of a man in red boots standing on the edge of the earth with a hammer in one hand and spade in the other, made him feel as though he had traveled back in time.

“Fourteen in this batch, Nester. Nothing but proles and infantry.” Millie, who was dressed in her usual gray overalls, inspected a clipboard.

“One hole?” Nester scooped another load of coal into the firebox and stoked the flame.

“You’ll get used to it. If it bothers you, spade’s leaning by the shed.” Millie shrugged. “But I’ve never seen a one-legged man work a spade into this hard earth before.”

Nester nodded and eased back the lever, lowering the boom, bucket open. He carved a ditch as deep as a full-grown man and as wide as three men abreast as he backed the steam shovel toward a stone marker. Then Nester signaled his eleven-year-old son, Lemuel, who helped out at the burial yard because he wasn’t allowed anywhere near the school anymore.

Lemuel grinned and gave one of the corpses a kick in the head. Following a dust-up of lime, the body swung halfway over the edge of the ditch.

“Have some respect, boy,” Millie shouted. “Gently!”

Lemuel glared first at Nester, as though he expected his dad to keep quiet, then at Millie, who was a young woman about the age Lemuel’s mother would have been. And Nester did stay quiet. Nester’s own father would’ve wrestled him down and tanned his hide. But Lemuel wasn’t right in his head, and Nester already had to sleep with one eye open.

Millie marched over to the boy wagging her finger. “Look here. Nobody would know if we just threw these poor saps over into the garbage heap. But when I scratch the names on that stone,” she said, pointing to an irregular headstone in front of the steam shovel, “well, that’s all the mom’s of these kids have. And that’s who matters because that’s who’s still alive–moms.” Then Millie went on and on under her breath about the injustice of her being pulled off of book salvage duty to tend the dead yard. It made Nester nervous to watch Lemuel’s face during her rant, as though he enjoyed his time here among the dead.

“Now, give them stiffs a good sprinkle of lime. Or else they’ll get ripe on us.” Millie pointed to a mound of white powder with a spade sticking up out of it.

Nester hop-skipped over to the shed and studied the lime pile. At the same moment he heard a whoosh of steam behind him. His chest felt as though someone had clinched his heart up into a fist, the same feeling he got every time Lemuel got up to something awful.

Nester’s mouth gaped as though a bubble grew on his tongue big enough to hinge his jaw wide. The boom on the steam shovel lowered over the hole, gears grinding. In the window of the operator’s cab, Nester saw the face of his son, an innocent face, just like the one he wore the day he was born, his eyes wide, not wanting to sleep or cry or eat, just stare at things, at people, at Nester, as though he might climb right up in through Nester’s eyeball and rummage through his brain. Lemuel had just sat and stared for the better part of three years before he ever tried to make a word. That happy vacancy had dug into Nester, into Lemuel’s mother, the way the teeth on that steam shovel bucket ate chunks of the earth. On the far edge of the ditch, Millie, working the water pump, had her back to Lemuel as the bucket positioned over her head getting ready to drop.

Nester almost screamed, but Lemuel turned his head at that moment staring right at him, swallowing anything Nester planned to yell before it left his mouth. The bucket on the steam shovel lowered, jerking back up and down again. With the eleven-year-old at the lever, the crane arm swiveled back and forth before the bucket crashed into the ditch, missing Millie’s head by a hawk’s beak.

Millie hopped aside, landing flat on her back. “Mama Jones! That was close. You trying to kill somebody, Nester?”

Nester couldn’t move. He could only watch his son frustrated by the controls on the steam shovel, slamming the lever forward and then back again. “Lemuel.” Nester said, realizing he had said it so softly there was no chance anyone had heard him. “Lemuel,” he called louder, though still much too quietly.

Millie sat up. “Nester! What’s that boy doing in that shovel?” Her expression soured when she saw just how close the shovel had come from her head.

Nester dropped the spade and made his way for his son. “Nobody said you could get up there. Did they? Get down from there.” Sometimes Nester just wished Lemuel would say something, anything at all that would tether him in the regular world.

“Don’t bring that kid back here. Consider yourself canned if you can’t find a place for him.” Millie pointed at Lemuel as though she spotted a rat scurrying off the mooring line of a ship.

“All right, Millie.” Nester had heard those words before. He guided his son up to the top of the hill that overlooked a valley filled with headstones, each covered with columns of names. Nester knew he was supposed to cherish his boy, teach him the ways of manhood, let him learn from his mistakes, but he didn’t think Lemuel knew right from wrong. And without his mother to guide him through, Nester figured Lemuel might just be a bread loaf so molded—by the time all the green spots were cut out there wouldn’t be any bread left to eat.

Nester had always considered himself a rumbler. He’d done his time at the front, lost a leg the first week, not but a kid himself at the time. After that he tried his hand as a conscriptor, tracking down and turning in able-bodied citizens dodging their duty. He’d never been afraid of anyone, not until Lemuel was born.

Apt, conniving, paranoid, politicking, there were as many brands of people as there were cotter pins on the dead yard steam shovel. Stupid–that was workable, too. Liars, cheats, even marauders, all had clear motivations, even if they didn’t unfurl them on a flagpole. But a beast hiding behind a pair of polished glass marbles for eyes–born with a moral switch thrown in the off position, a fiend who made no distinction between murder and sport, that’s someone that would sing a childhood verse before a pool of his own mother’s fluids.

Old-timers thought that when a monster like that is born, a crack opens up in the earth wide enough for hell to wiggle out a finger—an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, that sort of thing. Nester couldn’t vouch for the superstitions of the codgers sipping corn liquor out by the coal yard, but the day Lemuel was born, a tornado as wide as a granite quarry dropped out of the sky and crumpled up most of Richterville into a wad of damp splinters and tin.

He couldn’t deal with his own eleven-year-old boy the same way he might’ve plugged a drafter who abandoned his duty, caught carousing and thieving while good men were away. His son was his progeny, came from him—and ultimately his responsibility. And now that he couldn’t attend school and he couldn’t help out with digging the graves, that left Lemuel to his own devices; unmanaged, unleashed. He’d likely strangle the family goat for his kicks, or worse still, turn his eye to the neighbor’s wife and take to scaring her, getting his jollies like he used to with his own mom.

“Come on, boy.” Nester led his son through the dead yard gate. They turned onto the main road, Nester wanting to travel out in the open, hoping a convoy of steam-cannon infantry would mistake Lemuel for fifteen and conscript him where he stood, halfway hoping and halfway dreading seeing his son’s face at the bottom of a grave ditch in years to come.

Neither spoke as they trudged down the main road, father several paces behind his son. Nester watched Lemuel kicking up puffs of dust behind him as he dragged his feet along the ground, as though he were trying to grind a hole in the earth. Nester loved his boy, the idea of him, the way a man might dream of his future wife before he succumbs to domestication. He still pictured it all, combing Lemuel’s hair, helping him lace up his slips, sending him off to school with a smile on his face–like watching a stage show with actors that looked like he and his son. Lemuel never did anything but stare at Nester when he tried to make him breakfast or tuck him in at night, stare and sometimes grin. It wasn’t a happy grin. It was more of a smirk that cut a jagged line from cheek to jaw, dividing that boy into two parts, neither side any more peculiar than the other.

Nester pulled back the burlap curtain on their front door and put on a pot of beans. Lemuel sat in a chair in the corner and watched, chuckling at phantoms he alone could see.

“Here you are, boy.” They ate their dinner in silence, except for the clanking of spoons against their wooden bowls.

“‘Bout time you headed off to bed, now. Tomorrow, we’re going to see about getting you some schooling in Jonesbridge.” They would go to Jonesbridge tomorrow, but it wouldn’t be for school as Nester said. They would go so he could finally turn his own boy in to the constable for setting fire to the schoolhouse in Petry and for what Nester figured Lemuel had done to his own mom a month back. He had never gotten caught, but he always managed to be standing over a fire, or worse, watching over some poor sod bleeding from neck to knee–just watching, all wide-eyed and grinning.

“I’m going off to the pit for spot of sweet corn,” Nester said, grabbing his hat off the peg by the front curtain. “Get to bed now.”

Nester followed the orange glow of the fire in the salvage pit. At a distance, the collage of voices were indistinguishable from the sound of an overloader sorting wreckage. The silhouettes took shape against the flames, the usual ten or twelve old gimps propped up on empty ration crates, the only men left in Richterville, the town of a thousand widows.

“Hey, Nester. Heard that boy of yours tried to give Millie a haircut with a steam shovel.” The man, perched atop a rusted oil drum, sipped from a broken bowl, flame flickering behind him. He raised his hand, calloused from walking on his palms after losing both legs to an enemy piss whistle.

“Yep. Close call.” Nester never knew what to say when it came to the horrible things his son did.

“I better not catch that punk sneaking around my silo again, Nester.” A man wearing an eye patch hollered across the fire. “Hear me? Away from my wife. My daughters. And my barley.”

“I’m planning on hauling him over to the Jonesbridge constable tomorrow. A year or two in that pokey might turn him around,” Nester said.

“And while he’s there, maybe old Dugout can teach him the art of lock picking and throat cutting,” the legless man on the barrel added.

Mack, the only man with all his limbs stood up suddenly as though he might strike Nester. “Look at a pack of them wild curs. One comes out wrong, they eat it right then and there.” He pounded his fist into his other hand.

“Them curs eat their young ‘cause they’re starving, Mack. Just like everybody else,” a man Nester recognized as Horace, said from the shadows. “What are you suggesting?”

“I ain’t suggesting nothing. I’m saying. That’s all.”

Nester lowered his head, feeling more unwelcome around the barrel fire at that moment than the first day he limped up to the collection of damaged old soldiers a few years back. He reached for the ladle, which was floating in a pot of corn liquor sitting on a munitions crate. He sipped at the ladle, before gulping the rest down with a snort.

“Have you tried giving that boy a good lashing?” The man with the eye-patch asked.

Nester had thought about beating Lemuel, thought about it every day. Never more than the day had he come home to find Lemuel standing over his mom as she spilled out onto the larder floor, insinuating through that vacant grin, that she’d tripped into a turnip hatchet. When he finally did speak, he just kept reciting a rhyme “bad John Jack, gave his mom a whack, when he saw what he had done, on his father he turned a gun,” over and over again. When the world knew nothing short of war, it came as no surprise that a boy would see that. But Nester had loved his wife, Audrey, in every way a man could love a woman.

He just couldn’t figure what lay behind that grin of Lemuel’s. Satisfaction? Amusement? Maybe he was confused, not right in his head, and Nester should have buried that boy the day he was born, like a pack of curs would have had the sense to do.

Sunlight stung his eyes when Nester rolled over after knocking back more than his usual two ladles of sweet corn liquor last night. Nester peeked into his boy’s bunk. Lemuel was already awake, just staring at the ceiling, and grinning about something only he and the fires of the Chasm were privy to.

“Come on. Time to go.”

Lemuel stood up, never looking at Nester. He still had his clothes on from the day before. Nester wrapped what remained of his turnip loaf and tucked it into his pouch. “Long day ahead. Maybe two.” He pointed to the West.

Nester hobbled behind his son for several hours, hours that turned into three days, hop-skipping on his good leg and crutch along the winding path through the hills. As they reached the top of a knoll, Nester observed an entire fleet of steam shovels tracking in and out of what had become an enormous gorge, all spanned by a half-constructed bridge that disappeared into a wall of haze.

He’d heard all sorts of tales about the activities going on in Jonesbridge, all the commotion and construction, tucking all sorts of industry behind a giant mote to keep out invaders. All that meant to Nester was that somebody important figured the E’sters were about bring the front all the way to his back door.

“What are you grinning at, Boy?” Nester looked down to see Lemuel occupied with a dustup off the path.

Lemuel pointed to a bird, what had become an increasingly rare sight. It writhed in the dirt, wing broken or stuck, Nester couldn’t tell. This was one time maybe he could show his son that killing was the right thing to do. But Lemuel only wanted to poke it with a stick and watch it chirp and twist in the dust beneath a withering pinion. Nester picked up a rock and pummeled the bird. “Come on, let’s keep going.”

Beyond the temporary gorge-crossing and checkpoints too numerous to count, the row-upon-row of red brick buildings bore no resemblance to the Jonesbridge Nester recalled from the last time he was here. The town, at least the Knuckle-Dragger, the tavern where he met Lemuel’s mom, was boarded up with the words Munitions Depot painted on the front. The apothecary, inn, road house, fuel station–all boarded up and enclosed in fences, and an endless array of smokestacks belched smoke and soot across the sky.

When they arrived at the location where the constable and jail should have been, Nester’s outlook improved. Several girls and a few boys, not much older than Lemuel, marched about in orange overalls to the cadence of an older kid. They weren’t military. That much Nester could tell. Over the door, a peculiar sign read Property of the Civility Administration.

He glanced down at Lemuel who had his eye on the marching kids in orange. He nudged Lemuel’s arm. “Stay here.” Nester approached a woman inside the hut with her back turned to them. “Hey there,” Nester said, lifting his crutch in salutation.

“Who in whore’s hairpin are you?” The woman, twenty or so, at least ten years younger than Nester, slammed a clipboard down on her desk and filled the doorway before Nester could get inside.

“We’re from over in Richterville. My boy there,” he pointed back to Lemuel who stared at the sky with a grin on his face, “well, his mama passed, and I can’t do much for him. I seen these other kids and thought…”

The woman laughed. “You mean, this kid’s so bad some gimp like yourself can’t even use him to help out. That ain’t no kid I wanna take on.”

“Where’d these kids come from? They ain’t orphans?”

“Chasm no. We came upon these kids working in the fields, doing chores, showing strength and we snatched up for Civility. We only want the best.” She pressed by, eying Nester as though his crutch were covered in manure. “Try Industry. Or, maybe Agriculture. Don’t look old enough for Defense.”

Nester surveyed the countryside. Jonesbridge had certainly grown, but it all looked so dreary, all brick and smoke for as far as he could see. Lemuel made a fiery mess of his school, but this place looked regimented, indestructible. He figured those other folks, Industry and Agriculture, might suspect something was wrong with Lemuel, too. It did seem strange. A hobbled man could always use an able-bodied kid to help him make a living. Short of giving his unholy seed a shove into the gorge, Nester had reached the end of fretting about it.

“Come over here, Boy.” He led Lemuel to a coal shed where two women shoveled heaps of coal onto overloader platforms. Nester pointed to the person he had just spoken to. “That woman over there said for you to wait right here by this shed until she can come and process you into her unit. This’ll be the best thing for you. You’ll be around other kids, maybe learn a skill. I can’t take much care of you.” Nester felt bad for lying to his son, for tricking him like that but he didn’t see another solution.

He thought about lecturing Lemuel before he left, for the sake of these other residents here in Jonesbridge, but he knew he couldn’t reach Lemuel, so he just pointed to the line of smokestacks in the shadows of the mountains and offered what he could for his own conscience. “Now, these people won’t have patience for any of your shickery around here.” He rested on his crutch and started to put his hand on Lemuel’s head, maybe tussle his hair, as he would have a different kind of boy, but when he saw Lemuel look up at him through those vacant glass eyes, Nester gave the boy a nod and turned around.

On the journey back to Richterville, it struck Nester that he was still a fairly young man, had just turned thirty—if his mom had been correct about when he had been born. He had no reason now to feel as though his life was over, not now, not like he had ever since that boy entered it. He didn’t have to go back to digging dead holes with a steam shovel. He had no family left, and he did hope that the new Jonesbridge back there would somehow turn Lemuel around, but he harbored a fear that, in a few years, after the monster inside him had festered a little more, Lemuel would come with a fire in his belly to find the father who abandoned him. It got him to thinking that he might not want to go back to Richterville at all.

Nester stopped to rest near an encampment just off the main road where a throng of people milled around in front of a table covered with bread and soup bowls. Behind the table, a gray tent the size of a dancehall had its flaps tied open revealing at least a dozen rows of stump-chairs. Their food smelled delightful compared with the turnip loaf and salt ribs in his pack, so he sat down and watched until the crowd settled into their chairs. Then he followed the scent of stewed goat and scallions to a collage of empty bowls and a ladle in a black pot. He put the ladle to his mouth and slurped, dropping it suddenly when he realized not everyone was inside the tent.

“Not much left. But you’re missing the sermon.” A dark woman in her middle age barked as she strolled around the corner of the tent.

“Sermon?”

“That’s right, eat the food. Listen to the sermon. Drop a few coins in the barrel. That’s how it works.”

“Coins?” Nester hadn’t yet been paid for his stint at the dead yard.

“That’s all right. You can help me clean up. That’ll pay for that ladle full of stew. Lordy knows I could use the help.” She gathered her wiry hair into bundle behind her head. “Name’s Lalana.” She held out her hand for a shake.

Muffled exclamations emanated from inside the tent, shouts, rebukes, intermittent vocalizations from the audience, and all the drama piqued his curiosity. Following Lalana’s lead, Nester gathered the dirty bowls as he leaned toward the tent flap for a listen.

“What? You never heard a crazy preacherman before?”

Nester thought about her question, thinking maybe he hadn’t. Though he did give deference to the Great Above, same as everyone else.

“Repent. The end is near,” She said, waving her hands above her head. “But I don’t believe none of that. I’m a scientist myself. A doctor of animals.”

“An animal doctor? What are you doing here?”

“I look after the mules and tend to sick people, when I can, though people and animals aren’t assembled quite the same. I also serve the food. For my trouble, I get a trailer to cot down in and food for myself.”

Food. A cot. Nester liked that sound of that. “Need an extra hand? I’m a gimp, but I can work.”

She eyed him up and down. “You’re relatively young. My guess is you’d do all right. Mind you, we travel from place to place. Never anywhere but a day or two.” She clicked her tongue a few times, shaking her head.

Being around penitent folks like a nomadic preacherman struck Nester as a way to somehow atone for siring such a dark soul and then abandoning him in the world, and now that he had done it, Nester didn’t ever want Lemuel to track him down.

“Preacherman rides in the steam truck. Everything else goes by mule train.” She pointed at Nester. “I could use some help with these mules. Know anything about animals?” She clicked her tongue again. “What do you go by?”

Nester mulled it over, wanted a clean start, didn’t want to leave a trail, and he certainly didn’t want to step up on another steam shovel anytime soon. “Call me Errol,” he said, thinking of a character in one of his favorite stories his mom told him as a kid. “Errol,” he said again, trying to engrave the change on his mind.

M. E. Parker’s short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals. He is also the founding editor of Camera Obscura a journal of literature and photography.

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