by Eric Cipriani
This whole thing started because I went down to the Docks with my cousins, Mac and Petey, to have a few drinks. At the bar I’d somehow become entrenched in a conversation with a guy running for city council. I wasn’t even registered to vote, but I didn’t think to tell him that. He was on some thing about utility rates and the water treatment plant.
“Have you heard about the things they’ve found in the reservoir?” he said. “Have you? You don’t want to.”
“Yeah, me, I try not to drink water,” I said.
“You know the Adena people? The ancient mound builders? Right here on this river they built a great civilization. That’s how long people been here, and we’re gonna fuck it right up.” He took a drink, then held his bottle out like he was toasting me. “Thomas Jefferson wrote that this was the most beautiful river on earth. ‘Its current gentle, waters clear, and bosom smooth and unbroken by rocks and rapids.’”
I said, “That right?”
He said, “That’s right.”
The gas men—that’s what they call themselves, these fracking guys—were sitting at the end of the bar, not talking. I’d noticed them when I came in. These people stick out around here. One had fat sideburns that went halfway around his chin and a Texas Rangers cap tilted back on his head. There was either a small plug of tobacco in his lip or he’d recently been punched in the mouth and was swollen. The other was big like a linebacker and had a mean flat face, like someone had taken an iron to it. But his hair was so blonde it could make you cry if you looked at it too long.
The candidate turned to them and asked what ward they lived in.
“Not from here,” the big one said. “We’re with Weatherford.”
The candidate said, “What do you do for them?”
“All of it,” they said.
“All of it?”
“All of it,” they said.
I took this as my chance to get out of there. I slid off the barstool, but the candidate grabbed me by the elbow. “Don’t listen to these guys,” he said. “Have you seen the way they drive those trucks on the hills? They don’t have hills where they come from. They’ll kill us all.”
“Yeah, me, I try not to get killed,” I said, and he let me go.
I walked out the back onto the deck. That night, like all nights, the river was calm and black, and the torch at the coke plant upstream shined strands of light on the water. It was always burning, that torch, and I never understood what it was for. Smokestacks made sense—you burn something, you send the smoke up a smokestack. But why this big flame burning all the time? And it’s not like I never asked anyone. You’d think in this town someone would know, but they never did. Everyone was as clueless as I was.
I went down to the dock and found Mac and Petey on a pontoon boat drinking I.C. Light. We’d all just graduated college, believe it or not, and were back home exploring our opportunities. This boat was about as far as we’d gotten. Allegedly it belonged to a friend of Mac and Petey’s dad, my uncle, but we’d never been on it before. I hopped on and we drank, watching the coal barges pass. The boat bobbed gently in their wakes. We threw our empties at them and watched the cans float south. I imagined them meeting the Mississippi in Illinois, swimming all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.
“This used to be the most beautiful river in the world,” I said.
“Must’ve been a long time ago,” Mac said.
“Thomas Jefferson times.”
“I don’t believe it,” Petey said.
A little later I saw two men smoking on the deck off the back of the bar. It was the gas men. They flicked their cigarettes off the deck and started walking down to the docks. They nodded hello when they saw us and Mac invited them onto the boat, offered them beer from the cooler, and they boarded, sat, opened beers, tapped their feet. If they were any older than us at all it was only by a few years. They had skin like babies—it looked like it could be easily injured—but every move they made, from the way they popped off bottle caps with their thumbs to how they hung those thumbs in their belt loops was designed to say: Hey, we’ve seen some shit.
“Nice boat,” they said.
“Just got it,” said Petey from the captain’s chair.
“Graduation present,” said Mac.
“We’re full of shit,” said I.
Mac and Petey’s dad did eventually show up with a guy who owned a boat, except the boat he owned was not the one we were on. His was an older model with cracked blue vinyl seats docked a few spaces down from us. “I see where I went wrong now,” Mac said. We all got up to board the shitty boat.
We didn’t go out on the water, just sat there at the dock and drank. Soon I was sitting on the floor, in the corner of the pontoon, not feeling great. The gas men wouldn’t stop going on about being gas men, about the money they were making, the pipelines of cash flowing out from beneath the county.
“I have a college degree!” I said. “I’ll never make any money.” I wanted to dunk my head in the river and never come up. I tried tuning the gas men out. I stared over the edge of the boat into the hazy blue night. All of a sudden I realized that a guy standing on the dock was pissing into the river, and for some reason this made me mad as hell—I mean, I’d been tossing cans into it all night, but I got so mad I was shaking down in the corner of the boat. “Hey,” I called to the guy, “I drink from this river, asshole.”
“River’s full a shit,” he said.
I said, “Thomas Jefferson called this the most beautiful river in the world. According to Thomas Jefferson, this river has a smooth bosom.”
The guy laughed, and why shouldn’t he have.
I said, “Civilizations were built and destroyed on this river and you’re pissing in it.”
He shook himself off.
“Ever heard of the Adena people?” I said. “The ancient fucking mound builders?”
The guy zipped up and walked back to the bar like I hadn’t said anything, and in a way he was right. None of what I said mattered. Thomas Jefferson? Ancient fucking mound builders? Why should any of that have mattered to a guy pissing in the river? It seemed to me at the time that it should have.
My uncle asked the owner of the boat how someone named Bobby was doing.
“You know anyone in computers?” the guy said.
“Everyone is in computers!” I explained from the corner. I don’t know if anyone was listening to me. “I have a degree,” I said again. “I don’t know how to hack computers. I’ll never make any money.” I went on like that until I got tired of listening to myself. The conversation moved on without me, and for a while I just watched the torch’s reflection weave through the dark water. Some days the flame was tiny, like a dying match, but that evening it burned tall and bright. I started imagining its heat on my face, my skin bubbling up and falling away.
And then the gas men said they knew how I could make some money, just a few hours away, across the river in Ohio.
So now we were on this one-lane road I’d never seen before. I’d just woken up in the backseat. There were wheat fields on each side of the road and on the left, up on a hill, a big white house, and the fields surrounding it, on fire. We drove right past the flames. I leaned forward to ask the gas men if they’d seen all that.
“See what?” one of them said.
“Back there,” I said.
“The fire,” said the other.
See, we were on our way to see a guy called Opie. The gas men had told me Opie had a stash of pills he’d be willing to front me just to get them off his hands. Apparently Ohio farm country isn’t the drug market Vandalia County is, and I knew I could unload the stuff on all the junkies at the Docks who couldn’t admit they were junkies and take the more economical plunge into heroin. The gas men were gonna make me some money.
Neither of them said anything else. I realized we were all wearing denim jackets, but the only denim jacket I could ever remember owning was from when I was a kid, and it had Tigger from the Winnie the Pooh on the back of it. I loved that jacket. I got kind of sad thinking about it—that jacket and Tigger and all the other things that were gone and not coming back. I closed my eyes. We kept driving.
We were stopped now. I’d just opened my eyes again.
“Where is the place?” the driver said.
“You said you worked on the waste wells on his property,” said the passenger.
“I did. It should be right here.”
I felt like a lot of time must have passed since I was last awake. I looked out the back window. Smoke rose over a hill. I couldn’t believe it. Another fire.
“Another fire,” I said.
The driver said, “Another what?”
“Fire. They’re everywhere. Fires all over the place.”
The gas men both turned around for the first time. “Same fire, man,” the passenger said.
The driver leaned his head on the steering wheel and the way he breathed on it made me think he’d fallen asleep.
“That’s Opie’s house on fire,” he said.
“We better go get him,” I said.
“How? With what?”
“Our hands. The car. Legs, ladders, axes, hoses—I don’t know.”
“Is this a rescue vehicle? Am I a fireman? I don’t have an axe. I don’t have a ladder.”
“We should see if he’s okay, right?” the passenger said. “Call 911 or something?”
“Fuck the fire, fuck 911, we just need Opie,” I said. The gas men were looking softer and softer, like I could’ve skinned them with my fingernail. I started picturing their faces without flesh.
“You got a problem?” said the driver. His eyes looked like ping-pong balls the way they bulged out of their sockets. I wanted to pop one out and bounce it off his forehead. I was realizing that I didn’t much care for these two.
I said, “Hey guy, just put this thing in reverse.”
We went backwards about a quarter-mile to Opie’s house and got out of the car. He was standing there in the small dirt driveway with his hands in the front pockets of his overalls, kind of swaying side to side as he watched his house scorch. He was tall and skinny, probably fifty years old, had a smattering of hair various shades of gray. He turned to us. The redness of his eyes brought to mind the sheen of raw pork. He looked like someone you might expect to give a large quantity of synthetic opiates to a stranger while watching his house burn down.
“This the kid?” he said.
The passenger asked Opie what happened.
“There was a fire,” he said.
“Did you call 911?”
“Property’s worth more without it.” He flicked his hand back at the house like he was swatting a fly away from his ear. “Anyway,” he said, and pulled a sandwich baggie from somewhere inside his overalls, tossed it at my chest. I trapped it with my hands and held it like it was a kitten. I started petting it.
“Fifty there,” Opie said. “These two will get you for the money in a few days. Now gimme your jacket.”
“So I know you won’t screw me. Please don’t screw me.”
I gave him the jacket that wasn’t mine. That baggie was worth close to two thousand dollars.
The center of the house collapsed and the sound of all that burning wood crashing down was like the distant dynamite blasts I used to hear when they were widening the highway north of town, except it wasn’t distant and we were far from any highways. The gas men and I jumped back at the noise. Opie sighed like someone had just given him a stack of forms to fill out with a golf pencil. I wondered how long that house had been there.
On the way back, still on the one-lane, I said, “So you two worked out here?”
“Sure,” said the passenger.
“This was a dirt road before we got here,” the driver said. “Weatherford dropped a pile a cash on Opie and a dozen others like him.”
“We did the rest.”
“All of it?”
“All of it.”
They dropped me off at Mac and Petey’s house. Before I got out of the car I asked why they weren’t doing this for Opie themselves. Even after he got his end there was good deal of money to be had.
They said, “We’re not drug dealers, kid. We’re gas men.”
They were gas men. They were gas men, and what was I? I wasn’t a drug dealer. Sure, I’d slung some weed in high school, but only to friends. Unloading the pills wasn’t quite as easy as I’d thought it would be, mainly because no one had any goddamn money. I gave discounts. I sent some up my nose. The gas men came looking for the cash. They counted it in front of me, in the Docks’ gravel parking lot.
“What’s this?” one of them said.
“You’re short,” the other one said.
“What do you care?” I said.
They looked at each other like: Yeah, what do we care? and they just walked away and I hated them for it. Nothing mattered here. None of it.
So I threw gravel at them and called them fuckers and exploiters and carpetbaggers and baby-dicked Texas queers. I have no idea if they were from Texas. They roughed me up pretty good after that. I was more or less knocked out after the first fist hit me in the eye. I curled up on the ground, vaguely aware of boots kicking my arms, my legs, my back. Some of those rocks I’d thrown had connected though, I’m sure of it.
It’s true what they say about getting your ass kicked. It really puts things in perspective. Regaining the ability to breathe without crying a little bit didn’t take too long either, and last week I got a job as a cart boy at Kroger, so I have that going for me. I’m trying to forget about Opie and his pills now, and about the gas men too. It’s hard in this place though, because every other day you’re hearing about how the town is looking into selling the mineral rights to the cemetery or seeing a news story about a whole neighborhood a few counties away being evacuated because of a leaky well. That kind of thing. So I’m always thinking about Opie’s old house burning down and the gas men strutting around with their thumbs in their belts. I haven’t seen them since they beat me up in the parking lot, but I see guys like them all the time. I see their trucks barreling down the roads. The candidate at the bar was right. They don’t know how to drive on the hills. They’ll kill us all one day.
For now I’ve got my job though. The Kroger is up at the north end of town, near the coke plant, and when I work nights I sometimes get lost staring at the torch, at its huge flame illuminating the dark sky. While I’m gathering carts I can even see a small sliver of the river shining in the torch’s light. What in the world are they burning? All these days and nights for all these years? Where does all that energy come from? And what’s it doing up there, burning off into nothing? I’m probably gonna get fired for staring at that torch. I’ll zone out and crash a train of carts into a car or an old lady and that’ll be it.
But whatever. Like I said, nothing matters here. We’ll all be gone soon enough, just another bunch of ancient fucking mound builders, and then everything will be okay.
Eric Cipriani received his MFA from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. His fiction has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Booth, Carve, Fiction Southeast and elsewhere. He lives and works in West Virginia.