“Horse Play” by Kelly Kiehl Davis

Issue 15 / Fall 2018

 

At first, none of them said anything to one another. They never said anything to their wives either, or their sons when the sons came to the fathers, terror in their eyes, we did not think it would be like this. The fathers did not know what to tell their sons and so they said nothing, only kept quiet as the days slipped by, their ears ringing with the sounds of the forging factory down the road. It was uncommonly hot that summer, and all the more heated for the fumes that escaped the forge and followed the men home at night, the heat melting metal, melting their skulls, their bodies dripping away from them in beads of sweat.

Their door frames became warped; doors would not close. Their floors shook with each pound of metal on metal, each throb of their own hearts. Heat snaked its way into every breath of their lives; they could not speak for fear of adding their own heat to the already oppressive air; there was nowhere they could go that would offer relief. They slept on sweat-soaked bedsheets and watched wallpaper peel from walls, watched it bubble up as though their houses were boiling. When they stepped from the shower, they were not sure whether the dew that formed on their skin was new sweat, or moisture that had not yet been wicked away. They carried home with them the teeth-splitting sounds of the forge, so powerful that they felt every sound traveling through their bones, fracturing them once and once more along the same lines that one day would never heal. At night, they closed their eyes only to return to the fires of the forge, the factory’s floor of men in goggles and protective suits, stationed like chess pieces, planted strategically to tame the elements, the metal made domestic with heat.

*

It was Tuesday night, and like every Tuesday night, they were sitting at Willie’s after work. Willie’s was the coolest place available to them that summer. It had no windows and a cement exterior, so they always felt safe there, as though Willie’s were a bomb shelter for them at the end of the world, gifted to them by some royal and long-gone William they had never met, but whose black and white picture was still taped behind the bar. Willie’s marked the eastern outskirts of Alliance, Kansas; to the west lay corn and wheat fields, and to the east was a graveyard of abandoned train cars, sitting stagnant on disused tracks. In the late 1800s Pikes Peak Express Company had employed thousands of men across central Kansas to build railways for what became the Pony Express. When the railroads were finished, and the Pony Express itself fell into disuse, the families either moved to the cities for new work or stayed in small towns where there were factories to employ them. They often looked at this yard of disused train cars and thought about their forge, and how, when it finally closed down, as it had been threatening to do for the last few years, it, too, would join this silent scrap yard of metal. That particular high-pitched clanging of men taming metal, that very sound that deafened them in the forge and had deafened their grandfathers and their grandfathers’ fathers as they built the railways would rust away, soundless, beneath sun and rain.

Willie’s had a TV that told them how their Earth was melting and how their president was too rich to mind; Willie’s had a bartender named Teddy who always wore the same, too-tight shirt advertising the name of his band, Hot Love. They supported Teddy when he told them he was going into the city for the Pride Parade. They listened to his band on Thursday nights and tipped him for their Manhattans. Sometimes Teddy made jello shots in Dixie cups and put whipped cream on top and the men all ate them because the jello was cold and because Willie’s did not have windows. And because Willie’s did not have windows, and because that summer was so unforgivingly hot, the men mostly wore their undershirts and jeans around Willie’s, only putting their work shirts back on when they left to walk home to their wives. Teddy drank Dirty Shirleys daily starting at four pm and never cleaned the one unisex bathroom, which is the reason their wives would never come to Willie’s. The bathroom did not have a sit-down toilet or toilet paper, just a trough for them to pee in, and another trough to wash their hands in. They were often not sure which was which.

That night, Teddy had convinced Michael Harvey and Charlie Birsen to join him in drinking a Dirty Shirley, and Michael Harvey and Charlie Birsen were not used to vodka. It was this, perhaps, that knocked Birsen off his winning streak in their Hearts tournament. They had a bracket drawn on the whiteboard Teddy used to write specials on, before they all memorized the specials menu, before the specials menu became mostly arbitrary. And so, when Birsen hit two-hundred and fifty points, after trying to shoot the moon twice falling one point short, twice, he began to cry.

After a few moments of silence, they could no longer pass Birsen’s tears off as sweat, and Sam Chen was the first of them to say something.

“It’s okay, man,” he said. “We all have days where our game is off.”

Birsen looked up.

“It’s not that,” he said. “Stella is sick.”

“Oh, no,” Davey Chavez said. “But she’s so young.” Chavez was the best of them. He was a stocky man, with scars on the left side of his face from some fight he had not yet told them about, but scars that all the same made them feel peaceful in his presence. Chavez operated the drop hammer at the forge and spent the days in the factory’s hawk’s nest above the floor, watching out for them, often with binoculars. The boss had told Chavez to make sure they were working, but they knew Chavez to be one of them: he was, after all, on their same pay grade. And so it was like they had some up there looking out for them, and when Chavez came down from the hawk’s nest at the end of the day, it was like an angel descending from heaven, like they all had to keep themselves from hugging him to cleanse themselves of the tightness in their muscles that built with each drop of the hammer. They used a drop process at the forge, where hammers weighing one ton were released and then dropped onto the workpieces to shape them. It was the forging process with the most integrity, said the boss. It produced directional alignment in the workpiece: “grain flow” that increased the strength of the metal, decreasing the probability that the metal would corrupt under pressure. This meant nothing to them. What meant something to them were the fires they pretended to keep tame in the induction heaters, the lines of steel furnaces against the walls. What meant something to them was the fall of the anvil, the conversion machines that used three tons of iron to squeeze metal into new shapes; the fact that they were surrounded by machinery indifferent to them, protected only by feeble plastic goggles and fireproof worksuits, foam earplugs and Chavez’s voice somehow managing to rise above the sound of the factory, the fires of the induction heaters, the gas fired slot furnaces, the conversion and drop hammers, yelling, “Brace.”

“She’s having trouble standing,” Birsen said, draining the last of his Dirty Shirley. Tears fell into his open mouth. “It’s so hard to watch her like this.”

Stella was Birsen’s horse. They all remembered when Birsen left town for a few days to go pick up the horse; how he had saved up his vacation days at the factory for this three-day trip, how he took the long way through town back to his house so that they could all see the horse’s face peeking through the bars of Birsen’s trailer. His daughters named the horse Stella, and they all knew that Birsen thought the horse his finest accomplishment. Birsen and his family lived on three acres of land a few miles north of the forge: far enough away that he and his family were not plagued by the continual clangings of the factory, but close enough that Birsen’s wife’s migraines were still a daily occurrence. They had a small flock of sheep, two pigs, and Stella.

“Can you get a vet to come in and look at her?” said Teddy, now plunking a candy cherry into a fresh Shirley for Birsen.

They heard a sob from across the table, and turned to see Harvey, forehead scrunched, snot streaming from his nose.

“Oh no,” said Chen. “I’m sure Birsen’s horse will be fine.” He patted Harvey clumsily on the back. They could not help but try to imagine how Chen’s thick hands had won over his Brazilian wife. The general consensus among them was that with such meaty fingers, it was probably guaranteed he’d be hitting her clitoris, even though it was so hard for them to find.

“I guess,” said Harvey, lips fumbling around the stem of the candy cherry.

They quieted, unsure how to address the situation any further.

Teddy said, “Is Gretchen feeling any better?”

“Well,” said Harvey, “I think she’s taken a step back in her recovery.”

From their wives the men knew that Gretchen was suffering from postpartum depression, and that Harvey was taking her to therapy twice a week, often missing work to care for their new baby while Gretchen slept. They felt for him: he had used up most of his vacation days and would not be able to take off any more days this year, he’d be on probation if he missed another day without calling in. They tried to cover for him on the floor when they could, telling the boss he was in the bathroom, that they had just seen him, that he was coming but running late. His dedication to Gretchen was something they had always tried to emulate with their own wives. It was sweet and simple and endless. But all the same, they could not refrain from joking with their own wives that Harvey never referred to Gretchen by her name, calling her only, my wife. My wife is so wonderful. My wife is being really strong through this tough time.

The men all looked to Birsen, wondering whether it was more than just their own wife who had mutilated herself without asking them, who had shut herself off without so much as a word to them. The men trembled with the possibility that it was not just himself that had been emasculated, maybe this was a tragedy they all would share.

“Is there something new?” asked Chen. “Or is it just the same old stuff?”

Harvey paused. The men tensed.

“It’s just the same old stuff,” he said.

The men relaxed. They could not yet bear to admit what they had lost to one another. They walked home to their sleeping wives; wiped sweat from their wives’ foreheads, kissed them, sighed when they did not pull away.

*

The next morning, Birsen and Chen were stationed by the induction heater, moving workpieces from the hearth to the bench where they’d be shaped. Something was different on the floor this morning, they noticed it in each other, in the way the sounds of the factory felt like relief to them, rather than injury. There was a new tone in the way Chavez told them to brace, almost as though they longed for the fall of the anvil, the way it would consume their bodies, deafen them. The extreme heat, for once, was welcoming. They put on their protective equipment but longed to know what it would be like to feel the heat from the furnaces on their bare skin, to look into the light of the fires without protective glasses.

Chen and Birsen were monitoring the workpieces at the furnaces that morning, and as they moved to take a workpiece from the induction heater to the conversion hammer, Chen asked Birsen how Stella was.

“Not good,” Birsen yelled back. A bead of sweat ran into his eye and Chen paused for Birsen to blink it out until he could see again. In the factory, the men became so in tune to one another’s movements and one another’s pain that they could sense a weak link forming as it was happening. They moved together to compensate for each other’s weaknesses so that none of them appeared weak at any one time. None of them was ever alone at any one time. Harvey was late to work again; he was scheduled to be stationed beside Birsen and Chen, helping them transport workpieces from the inductors to the conversion hammers and drop hammers. The weight of the workpieces would be too much for Birsen and any of the rest of the men, but he was luckily paired with Chen for the day, and Chen was able to compensate for Harvey’s absence.

“We’re going to have a vet come look at her tomorrow,” said Birsen, as they continued toward the conversion hammer.

“Enough of the chit chat, ladies,” said the boss, walking up behind Chen and Birsen. He wore a suit like always, the only sign he was on a factory floor the neon green earplugs growing from his ears like sprouts. The men could tell he had only been on the floor for a minute, because any longer than that and you’d be dripping in sweat.

“This isn’t social hour,” said the boss. Chen and Birsen placed the workpiece onto the conversion hammer belt and straightened to face the boss.

“Sorry, sir,” said Chen.

“Where’s Harvey?” said the boss.

“On-site nurse,” said Birsen. “His back’s been acting up.”

“Really,” said the boss.

“Yes sir, I just saw him there this morning,” said Chen.

“We’ll see,” said the boss, and he walked away, through the door that led to the nurse’s station. The men imagined the burst of cool air that the closing door would leave behind on the floor, how quickly it would dissipate into heat.

“Does the boss seem a little tense to you?” said Chen, turning to Birsen. They walked back to the inductors.

“Yeah,” said Birsen. “He needs to get laid.”

“Yeah,” said Chen. “I wouldn’t put out for him either if I were his wife.”

“Yeah.” Birsen laughed. “Poor guy.”

“Yeah,” said Chen. “Blue balled by his own wife.”

“Yeah,” said Birsen. “Sad.”

“Yeah,” said Chen. “Very sad.”

“Brace,” yelled Chavez. Birsen and Chen backed up, though they were nowhere near the drop site. They relished in the way their knees shivered at the force of the collision, the way Chavez had blanketed them in protection from on high.

*

At home, Gretchen slept. Harvey sat beside her, holding his son, who also slept. Harvey had tried twice in the past ten minutes to leave without either noticing, to get to work. But as soon as he put his son down, or stood up from the bed, Gretchen would open her eyes and ask where he was going, or his son would begin to cry and Gretchen would pretend to continue sleeping. So Harvey sat, trapped, listening to the distant sounds of metal striking metal, colliding rhythmically, reliably, marking all the time Harvey was not where he should be. Their bedsheets had not been washed in months, and in the heat of the apartment their smell of sweat and baby puke stung Harvey’s nostrils.

The Harveys lived on the top floor of an old firehouse in one large room that was the bedroom, the living area, the kitchen, and the dining room. Harvey had joked with Gretchen that it was an “open concept” layout when they moved in, and even though it was small, the two had liked the brick interior and the hardwood floors, the window that spanned the length of the room and looked east toward the abandoned tracks that marked the town’s eastern border. Harvey had often stood at that window with his son in the mornings, feeling a sense of communion with the empty train cars that he could just barely see, right before the sun rose and flooded their apartment with light.

Harvey’s son was fidgeting, beginning to wake up from his nap. He opened his eyes and looked into Harvey’s, and for a moment Harvey felt there was nothing so clear and pure in the world than his son’s bright-eyed stare, and in that gaze Harvey tried to tell his son all he knew about how to treat the women he loved, but it did not work because his son was not patient, and Harvey watched as his son’s face wrinkled into ancient lines of grief, his mouth opened, and for a moment no sound came, and then—

“He’s hungry,” said Harvey, to his wife who continued to sleep. Harvey shook his wife.

“Your son is hungry,” said Harvey. Gretchen opened her eyes wearily, and Harvey tried to hand her the baby, but she did not open her arms. Metal hit metal and the baby wailed.

“I need to go to work,” said Harvey. “I’m going to be fired. And our son is hungry.”

“There’s milk I’ve pumped for him in the refrigerator,” said Gretchen, closing her eyes.

“Please feed him,” said Harvey, pushing his son onto his wife. “I’ve got to go.” He backed up toward the door. Gretchen sat up, panicked. Their son rolled off of her body onto the bed.

“Michael,” she said. “Don’t leave me alone.” The baby screamed, his arms and legs reaching and finding no one there to meet him, flailing, a beetle on its back. The sight of the two of them was overwhelming for Harvey, too much to bear, too much helplessness resting on him and he could not save them both, the forge announced itself over and over down the block, he did not know why his wife could not do her job and he could not do his, and in his frustration Harvey hurled his fist at the brick wall once and once again, raking his knuckles across the rivets between the bricks, turning to approach his wife, now cowered against the headboard of the bed, and Harvey held his bleeding fist out to her like an offering and said, “This is how sad I am for you.”

*

Harvey walked. He did not go back to work, though he passed the forge, heard Chavez casting his protective enchantments above the men. He walked to the yard of empty train cars and sat in one coated in coal dust; he dozed and dreamt the train was moving; he woke and walked once more. He liked how walking gave him the illusion of purpose. In the heat the coal dust had become stuck to Harvey, wedged beneath his fingernails and into his hair, beneath his eyelids and into his shoes. As he walked he wiped sweat from his forehead. The sun was much lower in the sky now, and the men had gone home from the factory. Harvey could tell because of the heavy silence in the town, the absence of the clangs of the factory. Harvey found himself walking north as the sun set, found himself at the Birsen’s. Harvey walked by the Birsens’ home and did not duck beneath the side window. He passed the pig pen, paused to watch them grazing. Harvey found himself in the stable with Stella, found himself running his fingers through her mane and relishing in the way she did not protest.

From inside his house, Birsen saw the barn door to the stable open. He stood at his window, watching.

“You’re so beautiful,” Harvey said. Stella did not reply. She lay on her side, her head resting on a pile of hay. Harvey traced the curve of her spine. Stella sighed. Something about Stella’s eyes unnerved Harvey, perhaps the size of them, perhaps that they did not blink, that they missed nothing. Harvey had the sense that Stella could see him no matter where he sat, and so he moved back, against the wall, toward her hind legs.

Birsen grabbed his revolver from the old shoebox atop his wardrobe.

“Close your eyes,” said Harvey. The sun had gone but this did not provide any relief from the heat. The humidity of the night hung oppressively on Alliance.

Birsen started out across the lawn.

“I love you,” said Harvey, stroking Stella’s tail.

Birsen’s voice cut through the humidity as he called across the yard, startling Harvey.

“Where’s my beautiful girl?” called Birsen. “Where’s my pretty baby?” He opened the barn door.

Harvey stood up, adjusted himself.

“Are you ready for some time with daddy?” Birsen said. “Yes, you are.” Birsen opened the stall and found Harvey, standing in the corner of the stable. The two men looked at one another, tense. Harvey eyed the gun now pointed at him.

“I’m sorry,” Harvey blurted. “I was just worried about her. Wanted to see how she was doing.”

Birsen looked from his horse to his gun up to Harvey. Harvey regretted not brushing the mud and hay from the knees of his jeans.

“She’s fine,” said Birsen, lowering his gun. “I didn’t know it was you. Thanks for checking on her. You can go home now, I’ve got her.”

Harvey did not move. He knew he would win in a fight against Birsen, a man who was only 5’5” and 150 pounds. Birsen knew this too.

“I think she’s enjoying my company,” said Harvey. The horse lay docile at their feet, her eyes unblinking, roving between the men standing above her.

As Birsen opened his mouth to reply, the two men heard a distinctly human sneeze come from the stall next door. They eyed one another in alarm.

“Honey?” said Birsen.

“Um. No. Just me.” Chen walked around the stall and into Stella’s, and the three men stood silently around the horse, looking at one another.

“I just wanted to see if Stella was feeling better,” said Chen. “And I heard Harvey coming, and I thought it was you, and I knew you’d be upset I came to check on her without telling you, so…” He trailed off. Chen would beat both Birsen and Harvey in a fight. The men had often placed bets on how many of them Chen could take, but the fights had never actually happened.

“You guys are great,” said Birsen, smiling. “Thanks for coming over to check on my Stella.”

“No problem, man,” said Harvey.

“We missed you at work today,” said Chen, turning to Harvey.

“Yeah, we covered for you,” said Birsen.

“Thanks,” said Harvey. “My wife was having a really tough day. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m sure the boss is going to fire me after missing today.”

“Probably,” said Birsen.

“I’m sorry, man,” said Chen.

“No problem,” said Harvey again.

Nobody spoke. Harvey wished Stella would close her eyes. The men shifted on their feet, looking down at Stella, each waiting for the other to speak.

“Look,” said Birsen, after a while. “You guys should be getting home. Thanks for coming over though.”

Harvey and Chen agreed. They both gave Stella a pat, Birsen bent down to kiss Stella on the muzzle, and they left the barn together, Birsen closing the door behind them.

*

Harvey did not show up to work the next morning. Chen and Birsen were again stationed together, this time manning the conversion hammers. Birsen wondered what it would be like to be able to crush metal between his arms. The men watched Chavez watching them. Birsen felt small beside the hammers, two enormous tongs of iron that reached up to where Chavez stood in his nest like the spires of some ancient castle, blackened by fire but not weakened. Chen and Birsen operated the hammers from a small control panel at the base of the machine which told the prongs how long and how hard to shape the workpiece in its grasp. Birsen did not like working at the hammers, though it gave his body rest from carrying the large workpieces across the factory floor. He felt nervous at the control panels, like he was attempting to chain a beast that could break free at any moment, that could overthrow what small influence he had over it by simply refusing to answer to the control panel. The two men worked beside one another in an uneasy silence that morning, the deafening sounds of the factory a constant reminder that they were not talking to one another. They stood side by side at the control panel, but were careful not to touch, and not to talk, until the boss came up behind them.

“Where’s Harvey?” he said.

Birsen did not answer.

“He didn’t show up today,” said Chen. The boss nodded; walked off.

Chavez yelled for them to brace, and the men readied for the fall of the anvil. The vibration of the fall shook the roots of Birsen’s teeth.

“Well,” Birsen said, feeling renewed somehow by the fall of the anvil, baptized by its vibrations, by Chavez’s prayer, feeling a new sense of camaraderie with Chen. “I guess he’ll be getting laid off then.”

Chen relaxed, laughed.

“Not our fault,” said Chen.

“Yeah,” said Birsen. “Not our fault.”

The men returned to their work at the control panels, their stance easier, their shoulders relaxed.

“Say,” said Chen. “Is Stella feeling any better today?”

Birsen stiffened.

“Yes,” said Birsen. “She’s much better. Thanks so much for coming by last night.”

The men did not talk the rest of the day.

*

That night, the men did not go to Willie’s. Teddy’s band Hot Love played a show to an empty bar while Birsen stood by his window, watching the door to the barn. Although his wife asked him to come to dinner, and then come to bed, Birsen refused, never tearing his eyes away from the window.

As their wives slept that night, the men thought over anything they had ever done wrong: the pass all of them had made at Sam Chen’s Brazilian wife at one point or another, the porn videos they kept on their computers in folders labeled “2011 Tax Return Files”. But even as Harvey thought about the ex-girlfriend he had given money to for an abortion and never seen again, and Chen and Chavez thought how grateful they were, not to have a story like this, the men couldn’t help feeling like they were not the ones who had done anything wrong.

Birsen awoke to a night sky and a slightly open barn door. He took the revolver from the old shoebox above the wardrobe and loaded it with a single round. The men thought about how none of them were there when their wives decided to sew themselves and their daughters up. As Birsen trudged through the yard to the barn, he thought, none of us were asked. Our wives were the ones who had turned away from us. When our fingers traveled between their legs, we found not our wives, but patchwork replicas of them; thick, coarse leather binding them shut, hook and eye, stitch and stitch.

The men sympathized with them, of course. They knew that perhaps their wives had been grabbed at, hollered at, whistled at one too many times. They knew that their wives had been mistreated, and the men hated their wives’ abusers, their harassers, those sons of bitches who scarred their wives, while their abusers were permitted to stay silent, never nervous to come to work, to walk the streets alone.

Birsen opened the stable door and found a man five inches deep in his horse, who tomorrow he would remember as Chen and tonight he saw to be Chavez; as Chavez hurried to compose himself, apologizing to a stunned Birsen as he ran from the stable, Birsen stood over the Stella, her rib cage heaving as she labored through each breath, her eye darting around the stable, unable to blink or settle; Birsen thought, we took sexual harassment training at work; we loved our mothers; we were not the ones to be blamed. We campaigned for our wives, made signs for them that said THIS PUSSY GRABS BACK, voted for their reproductive rights, given our lives to them. And still, our wives had not asked us.

“Daddy loves you,” said Birsen, bending to kiss Stella’s muzzle. She did not blink. Birsen stood, fired.

 

Kelly Kiehl Davis is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati and holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University. Her stories and poems have appeared in Contrary Magazine, Psychopomp Magazine, Passages North, The Butter, decomP magazinE, and elsewhere. Her work has been selected as a finalist for the Devine Fellowship at Bowling Green State University, nominated for the “Best of the Net Anthology,” and long listed for the Santa Fe Writer’s Project Literary Awards Program.

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