[wpaudio url=”/audio/june12/Sullivan.mp3″ text=”listen to this story” dl=”0″]
The company does not send flowers.

Anita receives condolences from her neighbours and old high school friends. Bouquets arrive from across the country, from family members stranded down in Texas and a great aunt who writes from somewhere in southern Oregon. They tell her to call and to write, to spread the grief around, maybe dilute it along phone lines or in emails from Juan’s old account. Anita can’t remember the password. It had something to do with the ugly dog that Juan tried to buy off his brother—Hercules. A stupid name for a dog, Anita told him. A stupid name for anyone really.

There are cards from her step-sisters and the kid who cuts the lawn. One of her old high school boyfriends sent a postcard with his cellphone number on the back. Bright pink letters fill the living room and some of the plants are already beginning to rot. The kids crunch dead petals under their feet, and the cat tries to eat the tiny pieces they leave behind. It pukes in the corners of her bedroom and no one bothers to clean it up. The house is full of apologies and longwinded poems about grief and forgiveness. They all use the word time like it means something when your husband has been broken into three pieces. They use words like destiny and recovery. Anita runs flower stems down the garbage disposal. She crushes tulips and roses into potpourri. She stops counting the letters and tries to sleep. She wakes up to doorbells and phone calls and the ever-ringing sound of her alarm clock trapped under Juan’s old work clothes.

The company does not send flowers though. The company just bills her for the ambulance.

Anita sits in the coffee shop across from the foundry. Her hair is up, showing off the ears Juan liked to kiss when he thought she was asleep. She didn’t want to ruin the illusion, so she had always remained still. She has cut most of her hair off now. It lies somewhere in a drain under the city, waiting to join a larger mass of cast off things. Anita has burnt most of Juan’s clothes behind the house. The neighbours balked, but did not call the police. They just watched the smoke rise and whispered back and forth about her children. There are no play-dates.

“There’s a new batch every day it seems.”

The man across from her points to the line of men outside the foundry. They wear bright orange hard hats and smoke cigarettes right down to the filter. Some have bracelets around their right ankles. Others massage scars from burns that run like furrows down their chests. Serpents and tigers clash with the many faces of the Virgin Mary on their hairy forearms.

“Place just grinds through them, but that’s what you gotta do. Keep bringing in new blood. Another batch of pumpkinheads. They got no idea what they are in for, of course. Wouldn’t be able to get them this cheap if they did.”

The man across from Anita knew her husband. He worked on the same shift, sitting in an office above the main floor. He watched the numbers, trying to boost productivity. He was the one who called toilet paper and soap luxuries, the one who suggested employees bring their own supplies. His name is George Allison and he was the one who found Juan underneath the conveyor belt. He was the only one who insisted they call an ambulance before cleaning up the scene. He was the one who snatched the bone fragments off the floor and covered it in bleach.

“Now Juan, he was no pumpkinhead. Ten years working on pipe doesn’t make you stupid. He was just unlucky in a place like that. And I woulda taken care of him, you know that, right? If the doctors hadn’t fucked it up, he might have still been with us today.”

George Allison called a few weeks after the funeral. He told her about what he saw, and how the company hadn’t done Juan right by his standards. There were still kids to be fed and that house wasn’t paying for itself. George offered to meet her for coffee. He offered to provide a helping hand. He was single and he was tired of living alone in his apartment. All his fish kept dying. He could never get the balance right. The chemicals never hit an equilibrium. Eventually, he just filled the aquarium with coloured sand and forgot about it. All the fish went down the toilet with everything else George Allison couldn’t stomach. His fridge was filled with yogurt.

“And now I realize this might be a little forward, you know, it isn’t easy for me to ask like this,” George says. He runs his soft hands through some spilled sugar on the table. His hands are pink and white and they shake a bit when he tries to speak. They look like baby birds. “But I was wondering if you might want to, uhm, well go on out and get some food with me or something? Not a lunch like this, but something that adults might do. Something to get your mind off the kids and everything else. You know if you feel like it.”

Anita does not say much. She flicks some sugar onto the floor with her thin fingers. Her eyes stare out at the pumpkinheads across the street, collected from the prisons and halfway houses out here in the country. She wants to warn them, but she has never been inside the plant. She only heard stories from Juan about massive gouts of molten iron pouring across the floor and an industrial oven that once exploded in the basement. Two of his friends ended up in the hospital. Anita looks at George Allison and all she sees is some limp bird flopping toward her.

“I guess we could do something. I’ll have to find someone to watch the kids.”

George’s face breaks out into a nervous grin. His lips can’t hide his teeth.

“Whatever you need, to uhm, do, you just get it done. I will pick you up. Sorry that we had to meet at a place like this—I just can’t leave the plant for too long, as you know.”

His hands flutter up off the table for a few seconds. He moves in to kiss her cheek, but it somehow lands on her ear. Only then does Anita realize his nose feels like a beak.

By the third time they sleep together, George has already begun to move his stuff into the house. The closet is filled with his shirts and there are boxes of books about the future of economic development and the colonization of Mars fifteen centuries from now. In George’s world, it seems everything is possible. Cars will only get bigger, phones will only get smaller. There is so little out of our reach. We just need to focus. This is what he tells Anita as they lay in bed and talk about the future. They talk about a bigger house and three cars and investing in educations for Paul and Anna. The children still call him George and the cat will not sit on his lap, but George is a patient man. He keeps track of how much toilet paper everyone uses and rarely adds salt to any of his meals. Anita’s friends say he is a catch and the neighbours stop asking about the pile of burnt clothes in the backyard. George has those removed discreetly.

It has only been a month or two, but George tells Anita she has nothing to worry about. She runs one hand down his chest, searching for hair she can’t find. His whole body is pink and it sweats in tiny bursts in the middle of the night. The sheets are wet with perspiration and everything smells damp when they wake up in the morning. Anita asks him what happened when he found George underneath the conveyor belt. George tries to grab her breast, and she pushes away his hand. He usually climbs on top and watches her eyes when they make love. He calls it making love and Anita lets him because she does not believe he ever learned to fuck.

“You really want to know? I mean, it was not pleasant. Some of the guys had to take a step back. He had probably been down there for a while. It’s hard to hear someone over the sound of all those machines. We had the health and safety guys tell us something about jet engines, but they never really gave us any guidelines to improve upon the safety measures.”

“What was he doing when you found him?” Anita asks. She’s cut her hair back even further. Her ears are fully exposed in the dark and she can hear every wet word George spits out into the darkness. She wants to know why he sweats so much, but she knows he won’t respond well to questions like that. He doesn’t like to be asked about his family or the way he uses a fork—like it’s a shovel or a piece of heavy machinery. Anita asks him about the foundry instead. She asks him about the injuries, the burns and the ever-rotating cast of pumpkinheads—lambs in a lion’s den, according to George. They are chaff on the floor. They are all replaceable. He hires and fires, but he doesn’t really make too many decisions. Those come from somewhere in Alabama, behind a desk larger than his car. He is just an instrument, he tells her. A powerful one, but useless in the wrong hands. His little bird hands jump across her body in the dark describing workers with duct tape wrapped around their hands after the cloth gloves fail in the foundry. She insists he tell her about Juan, and his hands retreat under the sheets.

“He was… well, he was still awake when we found him. The shirt he was wearing, it was too loose for maintenance work. Old Juan wasn’t really thinking that one through, you know? We always wanna promote safety down there, but a minute down is a minute lost. Three fittings going a minute—we start to fall behind if the system gets shutdown. So Juan went down there when the conveyor was still running. And the guard, well, the guards can cause a lot of extra jams. They call them ‘safety’ guards, but all they really do is gum up the works. It’s like taking a craftsman’s hands and putting them in rubber gloves. It doesn’t help anyone.”

Anita stares at the ceiling fan above her. She watches its blade rotate and remembers what Juan looked like at the hospital. His left arm was a nub, worn down by the spinning wheels and the relentless pressure of the conveyor belt. Its rollers had broken the bones inside his hand. The top of his head was chipped and the scalp was split like some rotten peel, leaking out all kinds of fluid onto the sheets as the doctors fought with the body to contain its liquid life. His mouth hung open, but chunks of his cheek had been worn away. Half his face looked back at her, but the pain made it distant, unfounded. Juan was somewhere in a haze and he could only grasp at the air with his right hand. It was undamaged. His wedding band was gone, swallowed up somewhere by that machine. Anita never bothered to ask for someone to find it down there in the greasy darkness.

“I was one of the first ones who heard him, and by then most of his arm was gone. He was still screaming, but the thing… look, Anita, I don’t need to tell you the rest of this, do I? I mean this is something that won’t ever be happening again, you know? Like, we have a plan now.”

Anita shakes her head. She wants him to continue. The air is filled with their sweat and the fan keeps tossing it up against the windows in waves of condensation. She wraps her hands around the bedframe’s bars and asks George to continue.

“Well, most of his arm was gone. And he wasn’t really talking, more like, just heaving around. It smelled pretty bad, it was like a grinder or something, you know? He didn’t even recognize me. I was the one who had them shut down the machine and I made damn sure there was an ambulance coming. I pulled him out and he was looking at me, but the thing had already ripped out so much of his hair. And he was bleeding all over the place, so I had to go and get something to start cleaning it up. I mean, it was just too much. No one was going to understand that, I mean the system runs and when we need to fix it, we have to do with what we have…”

Anita nods and tells him she understands. Her children seem to like George well enough. All his books are organized and he even irons her clothes. He can’t cook, but he does try and clean the dishes. The heavy water leave his hands wrinkled and spent. He still works at the foundry for fifty hours a week, calling her on his lunch breaks to talk about the latest pumpkinhead disaster. They have applied new policies since Juan’s death, but no one has launched an investigation. The conveyor belt that swallowed up Juan’s arm is still alive, still moving in perpetual stasis without a thought of remorse or failure. It is just cogs and rollers and an endless pull toward a goal it can’t ever reach. It is never satisfied. It only wants more.

In the darkness, Anita can feel George growing hard against her leg. She ignores the sensation and tries to pretend she is asleep. Somewhere in the wet air of their old bedroom, Juan asks her to hold his hand. The smooth nub he points in her direction drips all over the sheets.

George proposes once all the flowers are dead and gone. He makes sure all the letters from relatives and family friends are packed up into boxes and hidden in the basement. The company’s requests and payment statements are shredded and burned in the oven. George fills the bookshelves with textbooks and the collected works of Isaac Asimov. All of it’s alphabetical.

Everything is balanced. Even the new couch is centred in the living room, perfectly situated under the bay window. Anita still keeps all the blinds closed, but the neighbours say the children are behaving better. They do not cry out in the middle of the night and they have stopped capturing the local cats in homemade cages. George teaches them how to multiply and he even designs a chore chart for the bathroom on the first floor. Paul and Anna take turns scrubbing the toilet bowl. They learn long division and begin to memorize all fifty states without pausing.

Anita is standing over the sink with the dishes. They’ve had lasagne again. Pieces of it float up above the soap like crusty bits of skin. George likes to have lasagne after a hard day dealing with the regulators. They’ve been by a lot more recently, asking questions about the forklifts and their braking systems. Another pumpkinhead lost his helmet when one of the trucks backed up too quickly in the loading bay. The files all land on George’s desk, where his hands flit from folder to folder, repurposing burns and cuts as minor injuries and reworking doctor’s orders to result in light duty for injured employees who clean the toilets and unpack cleaning supplies. They are known as the malingerers by management and they are all missing pieces. Some of them bear burns along their forearms and others have fingers mashed into thick wads of paste.

“The problem is the guidelines are so vague. What constitutes a violation? Well, you can’t ask me. They hire me on to hire these guys, and now I am stuck watching out for fire hazards and dust floating in the air. Dust? Now dust is killing guys? You have to wonder what they are going to think of next, Anita. They really can’t expect us to follow every new trend. If we believe everything in those journals, well then, everything is killing us. May as well blame the stars for shining and the water for running. Eventually it will wear down the rocks. Just what happens. People break down. The world doesn’t stop. We don’t either.”

The kids are outside throwing weeds at each other. Dandelions keep sprouting up no matter how much pesticide George puts down on the lawn. Anita is thinking about Juan’s old wedding band lying under the dust and the grease on the pit floor. The conveyor belt must have spat it out somewhere into the dark. Her own rings hide in the bathroom cabinet. They’ve been replaced by a new stone from George, one that seems to consume her finger. Even on cloudy days, it spits out rays of bright light. She has already scratched the car with it twice. It sits on the edge of the sink and watches her as another dish emerges, still scabbed with burnt cheese. A wave of dirty water with chunks of pasta pulls the ring down into the sink and Anita tries not to laugh.

“It fell into the sink again, George.”

“Annie, you really need to keep an eye on that thing. I can’t be buying it again.”

She steps away as George stalks over to the sink. Both kids pelt each other with dead dandelions outside. Yellow streaks cover their cheeks. Anita watches them shouting, but the glass keeps out the noise. They are sealed away. No one can hear a thing they say.

“Now you gotta remember to leave it in a glass or something when you’re doing the dishes. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You think I’m breaking the bank again, you got another thing coming.”

George’s hands search for the ring, scraping their way across the bottom of the sink. They investigate the utensils and the bits of food clinging to the edges. He finally finds the stone circling the drain, rattling against the pipe, almost plunging beyond his reach. His tiny bird hands clutch at the ring and fight to pull it out of the hole. They are bright pink in the hot water.

“I found the littler bugger—”

Anita presses her hand against the disposal button and listens to him shriek. The kids outside continue throwing weeds at each other. George screams again, but Anita leaves her hand on the button. The machine gurgles and coughs up red, choppy water onto the kitchen floor. She presses the button down again and listens to it churning. She listens to George shrieking.

She wonders if Juan sounded any different.