Winter 2009, Volume 25.2
M. E. Parker
A Son of Abraham
After a stint in the Navy, M.E. Parker completed his education in physics, where he had the opportunity to couple his love for the Great American road trip with his soft spot for the environment by developing a working (though unfortunately impractical) prototype of a non-electric, zero-emission vehicle. His short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Briar Cliff Review, The Flint Hills Review, Barnstorm, 42opus, as well as numerous other print and online journals.
My mother taught me to remember every experience in detail—mentally catalog it, reference it, learn from it. I imagined that’s how she coped with life, her way of holding on to what little she had. Later, I came to believe that some memories should not only be allowed to whither and die, they should be hunted and killed where they live, no matter how difficult they are to find. For me, those memories lingered inside the smell of sulfur, in streaks of orange clouds at sunset or behind the rumble of railcars hitching up to a train, and they flourished in the shadows of the smokestacks six blocks from my father’s home.
My dad lived in Southern New Mexico in a two-bedroom, one-bath house with a view of a copper smelter and a rail yard. He claimed that growing up in eyeshot of such things was a reminder to concentrate in school and make good grades or wind up pissing away the prime of my life underneath a pair of smokestacks as he had done. I was twelve when they closed the copper plant in San Leon, relieved that, of my two choices, it was the rail yard that remained, as the trains were more likely to take me away from that place.
When I finally did get away, it was on a bus, not a train, and stepping back onto his porch after ten years, wondering why I had returned, things were much the same as I remembered them. The cream can by the door was still crowned with an ashtray full of cigar butts, and the sight of Dad’s chair reminded me of spring when the two of us sat out on the porch to watch the sun set. Yellow, orange, red, through a curtain of sulfur smoke, it would disappear down the shaft of sky between the smokestacks in the time it took Dad to puff his cigar to a stub.
The door cracked open before I knocked. It was still chained as my dad’s face squeezed into the space between the door and the jamb. "Jeremy, is that you?" His mouth disappeared in folds of skin and gray whiskers.
"I didn’t think you were coming." He lifted the chain from the door. "You’ve said you were before, you know?"
"I know, Dad."
"Well, come on in. Don’t stand out there lookin’ like a nut."
"How have you been?" I asked, bracing for a tirade.
"I’d be better if your mama was still alive."
"Me too, Dad." Everyone would have been better. We might’ve even had curtains on the windows and floors cleaned with pine-scented oil or flowers in front of our house if Mom hadn’t died when I was ten. After nearly fifteen years, Dad still mentioned her death as though she passed only a month ago, the eulogies still fresh in his mind.
"It’s damn cold out there. You’re lettin’ all the heat out." He limped over to the sofa, less than two feet from the television, and grabbed the remote control.
"Are you still having trouble with your vision?"
"Don’t start that again. You’re not putting me in some old folks’ prison just yet. I can see well enough to tell that you aren’t lookin’ too good."
"I haven’t slept much lately, but thanks for noticing."
I hauled my bag into what was, at one time, my bedroom. The smell of damp cardboard and mildew struck me as I walked through the door. There wasn’t a bed or even a chair, just boxes and junk and a mismatched set of golf clubs in the corner. As far as I knew, Dad had never seen a golf course anywhere but in his television. "Where do you want me, Dad?"
"Oh, why don’t you take my room. I usually fall asleep here on the couch, anyway."
My father’s room had a bed, only a bare mattress on a frame, and a dresser littered with photographs, mostly of my mother. I flipped the light switch. "Dad—"
"Light bulbs are in the hall closet by the bug spray."
After changing the light bulb, I slipped on a hooded sweatshirt and threw my bag on the mattress to unpack. Flashlight with extra batteries, bolt cutters, rope, hook, everything rolled up neatly into a blanket. My mother, who I remembered finding happiness in the unlikeliest circumstances, was smiling at me from a photograph on the dresser as if to give her blessing for what I planned to do. I picked up the frame and gave her a kiss, scanning the dresser. Pictures of Mom covered almost every inch of space, Mom and Dad, Mom in an evening gown, Mom in a swimsuit. The only pictures of me were incidental, Mom holding me, and Mom with her hand on my head. I tucked the rolled blanket under my arm and staged it by the back door.
We ate frozen dinners in front of the television set toggling between twenty-four-hour weather reports and "round-the-clock news" that recycled stories repeatedly throughout the day. When Dad’s gargled breathing turned into a snore, I took a look around the house and stepped out the back door with my equipment tucked under my arm.
A full moon lit the backyard well enough to get me through the alley. From six blocks away, I could see yellow spears of light poking up behind the rooftops in Dad’s neighborhood. On the chilly November night, I stepped out into the street in the direction of what resembled a spring carnival. The reason I had returned was only hours away.
At 1:00 p.m. the following day, a demolition crew from Albuquerque planned to throw a lever, setting off a chain of explosives in the long-abandoned copper smelter founded by Ryco Industries in the 1920’s. I knew generally what to expect. I’d seen footage of other imploded smokestacks. They dropped from the sky. Rhythmic blasts in the base of the stacks, each with its own burst of smoke. Without a foundation, the weight of the structure above it folded down into itself, into a cloud of dust. It would be a fitting end to the eighty-six-year-old brothers, one last gesture to the sky and then nothing, all the ghosts finally at rest.
Big brother towered nearly six hundred feet over San Leon, little brother, not quite five hundred. Folks from my father’s generation knew the brothers when they belted clouds of sulfur dioxide into the air, "the smell of jobs." They called the tall stack "El Frito" for an occasional crackle in the furnace that sounded like an ear of corn popping in a deep fryer. With brown splotches underneath decades of chipped paint, it also resembled a cinnamon-coated churro against the Organ Mountains. The shorter, younger of the brothers they named Sancho after the original plant foreman. People my age only referred to them as "the stacks," if we called them anything at all.
El Frito and Sancho were local icons, almost as much a part of the community as the Catholic Church built around the old San Leon mission. Anyone in town over forty had either worked in the smelter, or knew someone who had. When I was a kid, our middle school custodian, Javier, told us he quit working the night shift because the smelter was haunted. He claimed that the ghost of Tom Humphries, a man rumored to have been shoved into a pot of molten copper slag, roamed the factory floor and was responsible for two of El Frito’s three fires. The first one happened before Tom Humphries died. At thirteen, we envisioned a man emerging from the liquid metal, disfigured, skin dripping off the bone, always searching for the man who pushed him into the mix. In 1985, Ryco Copper ceased production in San Leon, leaving one less smelter town between Las Cruces and Arizona and a lot of people out of work.
Everyone avoided the place for a year or two after it closed, until word got out among the homeless along the rail that the outbuildings around the smelter made a great place to crash. The year I turned fifteen, three years after the smelter closed, when the south side fence, according to my dad, "had more holes in it than the Iran Contra Scandal," the smelter turned into a safe haven for after-school pot smoking, and eventually became an underground punk rock hangout, "Hard Core," the politically aggressive stuff. A few bands came through. It lasted for a while until a "difference of opinion" between rival factions from El Paso and Las Cruces spilled out onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train.
That incident prompted an EPA inspection, after which the smelter was proclaimed hazardous. They ran off the vagrants and repaired the fence, this time with razor wire spirals along the top and signs with triangles and red circles and skulls with crossbones, images I had envisioned every night for the last thirteen years as I struggled to get to sleep. To combat its negative perception as the state’s worst polluters, Ryco returned with plans to transform the dilapidated smelter into a museum commemorating New Mexico’s mining and metals history, but they never developed the project. The ghost of Tom Humphries would have the place to himself for at least another year before he finally got some company.
With the gate in view, I slipped into the shadow of a parked car. The sight of the stacks made my hands tremble. My chest felt as though a belt tightened around it, squeezing the air out of my lungs. I stared at them for a minute or two, admiring their power. Illuminated in the night, El Frito and Sancho basked in one last moment of glory, their reign over the San Leon sky would soon come to an end, and in their place, a clear view of the pinion pines in the jagged hills behind them.
I had less than two hours before dawn. The Briggs Demolition Company already completed a systematic clearing of the site. The storage warehouses, the slag pit, even the lunchroom were all flattened and removed. The only structures that remained of the San Leon copper smelter were the Ryco company store, historically significant, and the stacks.
Over five hundred feet of naked ground lay between the perimeter fence and the demolition site. I counted two pickups staged near the gate. Three men with coffee ambled by the fence keeping watch on El Frito and Sancho until daybreak when they would pack them with dynamite. Briggs had taken every precaution. Everything from Bosque Street to Dad’s house was cordoned off, lit up, and off limits. No one wanted to take any chances, especially with the history of the Ryco Copper Smelter.
The town of San Leon would never have existed without that smelter. It had given people jobs, but it also made a few enemies along the way. Hours before the implosion, San Leon would be teaming with onlookers, from leathery men in wheel chairs who worked the first swing-shift in the plant to celebrating environmentalists and curious college students from Texas. I thought maybe even the Greenbergs would show up to watch the stacks fall, and I imagined there would be at least one reporter who remembered what happened here thirteen years ago to twist the demolition into a racially charged event.
I crawled along a swath of shadow that paralleled the fence. Lights from a truck near the southwest corner of the site flickered into darkness as the engine fell silent. I jogged to the chain-link fence and snipped a hole just big enough to squeeze through into the open space between the fence and the stacks.
The hills around San Leon shimmered as twilight bounced off patches of early snow. In less than eight hours, after thirteen years on death row, El Frito and Sancho would finally have their death sentence carried out. They would crumble to the ground, taking with them the voices trapped in their shadows, voices I could still hear as I inched my way across what used to be the smelter furnace. "Come here, Bucky. P-p-please, st-stop it." Their laughter echoed through the valley. And just as he had thirteen years ago, the ghost of Tom Humphries remained silent.
I stood with my hand on El Frito. I bent down and crawled right up into his belly into the smell of decades worth of sulfur. "That’s right. Keep crying cause you’re next, Bucky Boy," they said, as though the words had hung in the stale air around the smelter for thirteen years waiting to inflict their damage again. "We’re just helping along the natural selection p-p-process."
I flipped the switch on my flashlight and shined up the blackened wall of the smokestack. During the Great Depression, the copper smelter had given an entire community hope. Through the Second World War, it united the town to work together, cranking out copper for the war. An economic boom in the fifties increased its production, and when the environmental laws came down in the seventies, it got a refit. But during the winter break of my freshman year in high school, two years after the plant closed, after the razor wire and the warning signs, four skinheads from Las Cruces used the abandoned smelter for a "reenactment." And unlike an innocuous recreation of a famous Civil War battle, this reenactment had teeth. The industrial backdrop, the soot-stained, once red-bricked buildings fueled their delusion as they attempted to resurrect a Nazi concentration camp from what they had read in books. Their three prisoners were Josh and Sammy Greenberg, our neighborhood’s only Jewish boys, and the poor kid with an overbite who stuttered his m’s and p’s, a fifteen-year-old Catholic who became an honorary Jew during the coldest week in January of 1985.
They tried to make our conditions as "authentic" as possible, and we cried and prayed to everyone but the devil himself for the terrible image of Tom Humphries to mistake our captors for the men who shoved him into the molten copper back in 1938. My mom died two years before all this happened, but I imagined even she would have agreed that the details of my experience in the smelter would be the exception to her rule to remember everything.
I was the only survivor of the ordeal, what the news dubbed "a symptom of an ill society," but the moment Josh fell to the ground with his brother in his arms, I also died. Nothing in my life from that point ever made any sense, living in the shadow of those two concrete smokestacks, monuments to the worst week I could imagine.
El Frito and Sancho would be packed with enough explosives to send them straight to hell and me along with them. I was the oldest. I could have done more to get us out of there. I could have saved Josh and Sammy or sacrificed myself—or not made the deal— my morality for my life. On the final day, they gave me the choice to get on board with their message "or die with them." A stronger kid would have stood up to them. Anyone else would have fought harder. I could only stammer and shake.
As I stood in the middle of that smokestack, I found my spot, a bracket about ten feet up into the chimney. It created a ledge wide enough to stand on with a view of what would be, the next morning, a cerulean disc of sky straight up El Frito’s throat. I unrolled the rope and fastened a hook to one end. It clanked on the smokestack wall and dropped back to the ground. The stack was narrower than I expected. I didn’t need the rope as I shimmied up to the bracket with my back against one wall and my feet against the other. My plan: I would stand quietly when they came with the dynamite, and in my dark clothes up above them, I would blend in with the soot. They would set the charges and at 1:00 p.m., after a deafening pop, I would join Sammy and Josh as I should have thirteen years ago.
The odor of sulfur was suffocating. Drafts of cold wind whipped up through the stack, numbing my extremities. My teeth chattered. I had to remind myself that I was chattering, not stuttering. I’d come far in life—oral surgery, speech therapy, good job. I wore nice clothes, drove a Peugeot, but none of that mattered here at the smelter. I’d reassured myself repeatedly that they forced me to do and say those things. I was tortured into submission. I would rather have died than force Sammy and Josh to hear, as the last sounds to pass their ears, the despicable diatribe those skinheads made me recite.
The childless Greenbergs moved away the next year, but every time I saw them in the grocery store or the bank, they looked at me, because I had survived, as though they weren’t sure whether I had been a victim or really a perpetrator. Others thought that, too, but the extent of my injuries were enough for most people, for everyone but the Greenbergs. I held my arms to my chest and curled my toes, hoping the wind would let up knowing those few hours might seem like days. With only inches of space between my nose and the other side of the stack, I leaned my head against the wall and closed my eyes.
I awoke to voices before I realized I had fallen asleep.
"I thought you said this place was clean?" A man wearing a Briggs Construction cap said into a handheld radio. I only saw a face poking in through the chimney chute.
"It is," a grainy voice on the other end of the radio responded.
I inched back toward the wall trying not to move.
"Well, it’s not. We’re in the business of blowing up buildings—not people." The man in the Briggs cap looked right at me. "We’re gonna need a ladder or something in here. I found someone up in the stack."
"Come again," the voice in the radio said.
"Unless I’m seeing things, there’s somebody up in here. Maybe a bum getting in out of the cold."
"Well, it’s not going to be cold for long." The radio crackled as the man on the other end laughed.
"I’m not a bum. Actually, I’m an attorney," I said, standing up against the wall.
"An attorney? Then you should know that trespassing is against the law."
"I think I can get down without a ladder."
"Easy, now, that’s a tight spot you’re in. I don’t guess I even need to ask what the hell you’re doing in here." He pressed the transmitter. "Cancel that ladder," he said into the radio.
"I don’t want any trouble. Just wanted to end it. You know what I mean?"
"No, I don’t." He shook his head.
I stumbled out into the open and turned to the man with the radio. "I don’t suppose there’s any way you could just forget you ever saw me down here, is there?"
"Look, if you want to kill yourself, jump in front of a bus, nutbag," he said under his breath.
A police car pulled up as we reached the gate. "Jeremy Fulton?," the driver of the car asked, leaning over his partner for a look out the window. "It’s all right. I know this man. Me and Jeremy went to high school together."
"Good, he’s all yours."
"Hop in. Me and Gonzales will give you a lift." He gave me a pat on the shoulder. "Stayin’ with your dad?"
"Yeah," I said.
"He still live over on sixth?"
My friend from high school kept asking me questions until we reached my father’s house, though I didn’t hear any of them. His voice blended with trucks and equipment and the wind whipping through the open window. Everything was white noise. It was almost the same ride home in the police car as the first time I escaped certain death in the smelter. In the backseat of the patrol car, I was, again, a traumatized fifteen-year-old kid with an overbite, mortified of words that start with ‘m’ or ‘p.’ Thirteen years ago, I expected my dad to welcome me home with elation. His only son was still alive. Instead, he had treated me like damaged goods, a rape victim who was "asking for it." This time, I knew what to expect.
Dad and I sat on the porch all day hardly exchanging a word, both of us staring at the smokestacks waiting from them to fall. The demolition occurred as planned at exactly 1:00 p.m. A low rumble preceded the blast. Then El Frito and Sancho knelt to the ground and disappeared.
"I blame myself for a bunch of this stuff," my dad finally said. "Your mother was the one that filled your head with all that business about social injustice. I didn’t prepare you for real life. I should’ve toughened you up, but you and your mom were so close."
I stared at my dad trying to get him, at least, to glance in my direction, to acknowledge me in some way. "How would Mom have taken it when we went missing? When she found out what happened to Sammy and Josh."
"I don’t know. I keep her photographs to remind me, but I don’t really know her anymore, Jeremy. It would’ve burned her up, though. I can tell you that."
"Your mom didn’t know much about her family, being raised by foster parents, but she knew a little. What happened to you and them Greenberg boys," he shook his head. "I don’t know if you ever knew this, but your mom was Jewish—well, half, anyway. I’m talking biologically—not religiously. She was raised Catholic just like you."
"Dad," I hopped up from the lawn chair. "Why didn’t anyone ever tell me that?"
"I just told you, didn’t I?"
"I mean years ago."
"What does it matter? Can’t help what you are. Everybody’s got to be something." He shrugged his shoulders. "No need to advertize it. I’m Irish and German, hell, even a little Mexican. Your mom was half Jew, half mad Scotsman. There, now you know." He didn’t look at me as he spoke.
"I don’t know. I thought something like that might confuse you a little—after that business in the smelter. I didn’t want you getting any ideas in your head."
"Oh, you know how some people hear about a relative and start getting curious, tracking down their lineage. There wasn’t any sense in you going down that road. Your mom was only half Jew," he finally looked at me. "See, that’s what I’m talking about. If you could see the look on your face, Jeremy, you’d know why I never told you about it."
At that moment, I was glad I hadn’t gone down with El Frito. For the first time, I actually had something in my life that actually made sense. I sat next to my dad that evening as the sun dropped behind a bank of clouds. Yellow, then orange, it faded behind the horizon as Dad’s cigar smoldered between his fingers. The smokestacks had fallen, but their imprint still hung in the sky outside my father’s house.
Only after I returned, seven years later, to bury Dad did the sky seem right without El Frito and Sancho. By then, I had a wife and a young son of my own, who never met his grandfather. We sat out on Dad’s porch eating candy. My son’s legs swung from the rocking chair as I told him about his grandparents. Having seen only the chaos of the city in his four years, my son asked me: "Dad, is this where cartoons come from?"
My wife and I laughed. "Why would you think that?"
"It’s very pretty here," he responded.
I had never really thought of that place as pretty until that moment, but I was glad that my son was going to take after his grandmother.