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.