That a covered bridge makes a stream more itself than when left to is own devices is a signal paradox of the man-nature dichotomy. A steel bridge calls attention to technology, a modern concrete ridge intrudes, an uncovered wooden footbridge seems temporary, insubstantial. But a covered wooden bridge, constructed by honest, unschooled workmen for the practical purpose of preserving the structure agains rot and time, stands like a wistful statement of the landscape itself: “How is it I didn’t think of that?”
The covered bridge over Mead Creek was in almost terminal disrepair, and as it flaked away, the sadness of the woods crept out and over the stream. Long ago closed to cars and horses, the bridge was now officially impassable, though occasional hikers and Sunday strollers hopped from beam to beam, skirting the collapsed roadway.
James Moloney stood at the northern end of the bridge with his arms crossed severely on his chest. Square-faced, he gazed for a good ten minutes, occasionally tightening his mouth, broadening the spread of his lips in what might be either a nervous tic or a recurrent reflection of concentration. As he turned away, he said simply, “Ah, goddam.”
He righted his bicycle, which he had leaned against an ash trunk, and swung astride with a wide sweep of the leg, as though mounting a horse. Paint-chipped, grease-stained, altogether woebegone to the eye, his steed moved under him almost with a will of its own, singing to the dirt road a soft, hissing tune, its gears meshing in cooperative bliss. Moloney knew how to care for a bicycle and did so religiously, neglecting only the exterior of the frame in a deliberate effort to downgrade is desirability to thieves.
Behind him, the bridge slid into the trees. He pedaled with much the same concentration he had shown when inspecting the bridge, pumping his legs but otherwise hardly moving his thick body. He passed the long, low wall of an estate on his right, staring straight ahead. Depressingly soon, the woodland alternated with strands of rusting appliances and car segments, the discarded tangle of an over-productive civilization. Then the greenery ended altogether, replaced by the gray town, 3,000 souls huddled in perhaps 1,200 house so densely packed they seemed paradoxically both few and without end. The miasma of unrealized life flowed outward to lap at the vegetated landscape.
Moloney turned from the main street into one much like it but slightly narrower, flowing downhill. At the second cross-street – the last on this low side of town – he coasted to a stop before the corner house, a clapboard two-story painted a garish yellow with odd daubings of green – a windowsill here, a water spigot there. The impression of the building was the opposite of the bicycle, a gaudy, assertive surface covering unnamed structural flaws.
Moloney left his machine at the curb and padded up the walk, his feet soundless despite a solid, no-nonsense tread.
He pushed open the door, unencumbered by either lock nor latch, and passed through a short, unadorned hallway to the kitchen. He washed his hands at the chipped porcelain sink bracketed to the rear wall. The wall to the perpendicular right housed a line of decrepit wooden cabinets and an absurdly ancient high-legged Roper gas stove with a thumb-operated pilot that shot jets of flame in a blue X toward all four of its burners.
A small wooden table with turned legs and cracked top, painted the same green that spotted the house’s exterior, and its two bentwood chairs flourished by the side window. A strange, boxy cast-iron contraption that might pass for woodstove or furnace but had no flue, lived in the center of the floor. Moloney kept his refrigerator, a 1956 Montgomery Ward, on the rear porch, where it failed to chill sufficiently in summer and froze solid in winter.
The otherwise spartan room was mad with plants: hanging pots and baskets of fuchsia, asparagus fern, pteris fern, prayer plant, purple passion and varieties of philodendron. Crossing the room, Moloney bobbed and weaved like a boxer, flicking tendrils aside and caressing leaves. The table supported five flower pots, leaving barely room to place a small plate and a glass. Separate stands held jade plants and palms, swamp cypress and cyclamen. The window sills, crammed with smaller containers, were sodden with a mat of leaves descending into humus. That it had taken him only three years to so accommodate himself to the place and the place to himself, stood as a measure of the man, though perhaps one laid down with a warped yardstick.
Moloney stopped in the center of the room, placed one hand on the great iron box and burst forth in furious Gaelic. What might have sounded to the unknowing like an idyl of battle was in fact a rugged yet mellifluous roll of town names from County Cork, Ireland. Each day he recited such a list, varying each rendition by both the geography chosen and his position within the room.
“Ah, goddam,” he added at the end, as he had in the woods. Then he took down a box of crackers and a knife from a wall cabinet and sat at the green table to eat. When he had finished, he placed the knife in the sink. the crackers in the cabinet, and composed a letter to his uncle, Michael Moloney.
Michael Moloney owned the walled estate that James Moloney had passed on his way home. He also owned and operated the Cordwainer Foundry and Plating Company, the source of much of the town’s employment and the cause of the covered bridge’s demise. Effluent from the foundry filled the woodland with a pungent, noisome stench. Children who defied parental bans to splash in the stream would sink to their ankles in a sickening squelch and later find that a sheepy, metallic odor cling to their bodies for hours.
That Mead Creek flowed directly below Michael Moloney’s mansion fueled James Moloney’s steely disdain for his family. To so foul one’s own nest for the sake of money or power was beyond his comprehension.
Having waved his pen in circular flourishes above the pad for some seconds, James wrote, baring down heavily, leaving an impression several sheets deep:
“Should you, for some inconceivable reason, have thought to include me in your will, please remove me forthwith. I would no more accept your money than I would swim in your creek.
“James H. Moloney (otherwise, your nephew)”
The letter had little to recommend it calligraphically. The gummed Bic had left gelatin blots, and the cursive sweep had stalled and bumped through the network of impressions from former compositions, mostly poems sent off to insubstantial magazines. (Poetry boiled from Moloney when he least expected it. He took no time to revise, simply whisked the latest verse, without rereading, to the next scrawny quarterly on his list.)
Finding an envelope and a stamp took minutes. Though he could recite the name and location of every living plant cluttering the space and mourned the passing of each leaf, he was incapable of engineering a system to partition the remainder of his physical life. When he bought or was given an object, he opened cabinets and closets at random until he found a space that would accept it, then inserted it and promptly erased the memory of its existence. Wile rummaging for an item he was continually delighted by the unrecalled treasures he uncovered.
On this July Saturday, he pedaled swiftly to the post office to deposit his letter before the noon closing. The sky was clear, the sun warm, the breeze between five and ten miles per hour from the northwest, but the town still exuded its misery. Frame houses shed paint in sorrow, brick ones accrued dark stains that crept inward to their core. The post office was squat and aggressively ugly, its rectangular stones at some period tortured by masons. Despite the breeze, its flag lay limp against its pole.
Moloney had missed the final weekend pickup by a scant five minutes. He waved the envelope in the air, then placed it in the breast pocket of his work shirt and pumped through the town and out the far end, flowing uphill with ease, as though unacquainted with gravity. The hills were low but numerous and abrupt. The road, a tertiary state highway, contorted itself in almost unseemly curls that, by way of compensation, permitted no easy commercial development. Ash, birch, beech and poplar, here and there a maple, grew unimpeded to the shoulder’s edge. The occasional house was set back and intruded marginally if at all into the unhurried beauty.
Moloney crooned in a low baritone, songs of Ireland, but in English.
At the crest of a hill, he stopped by a dirt turnoff and shackled his bicycle to a thin birch with a length of cable. In such isolated areas, people took things, not out of meanness, but from passing fancy.
For the first time that day he looked unpurposed, walking slowly along the dirt road, flinging his legs out slapdash from the knee. He whistled a bit, looked about, grew silent. Birds whistled also, and chipmunks darted through the undergrowth like miniature express trains. Moloney stopped to urinate, pointing his member off the traveled way but making no attempt at concealment. He shook himself sharply, twice, and laughed, holding his penis for a moment before threading it home.
Three quarters of a mile farther on, an inconsequential trail eased between two boulders on the right. It took a slight downward slope, through sparser, younger trees,, mostly pine and scrub sumac. Fewer birds twittered, and the intermittent rustlings were bug-sized. The trail, remarkably consistent in direction, moved southwest, placing the sun at his left shoulder. At a shale tumble with sides of raw earth and elbowed roots, he eased left, picking his way uphill through the loose stones. He stopped before a miniature stone cave, less than two feet high, not more than that deep.
He rotated his shoulders and massaged his neck, taking the occasion to sweep the surrounding terrain with his eyes. Then he dropped to his knees, extended his hand into the damp hiatus in the rock, and pulled loose a stone in the rear, a sort of plug. He withdrew a tiny draw-stringed satchel made from a section of innertube, its rim folded over and bound with nylon twine, making the whole almost waterproof as a milk bottle. After untying the string, he slipped the bag’s contents into his right pocket and placed the contents of his left pocket into the bag. Last, he stuffed the bag back in its hidey-hole.
“And much good may it do us,” he muttered to the scree at his feet.
As he scuffed and slid down the stone wash, four years of diffuse rage solidified into igneous determination. The covered bridge had become a symbol of revolution calling to him. Today, seeing that one of the three spanning beams had cracked, he felt the splinters pierce his thick hide and violate some internal sanctuary. He had oozed from numerous lacerations of conscience before; now he bled openly. God help this ruinous family of his, for he was prepared to launch a true Holy War.
Small towns in the New England woods are no longer considered receptive to revolutionary activity. The spirit of Nathanael Greene lies in slumber, spinning contented dreams. What there may be still to rebel against – failed hopes, unproductive land, shrinking resources – seldom forms hard focus, and even were it limned clear, the natives would prefer to study their boots. Only white-collar sorts from New York, their souls on bucolic sabbatical, disturb the equilibrium with new demands, and a town like Moloney’s, the antithesis of picturesque, drew few from the outside world.
James Moloney had not come to escape. For he could not escape what pursued him – mad, riotous familial wealth. He was worth, literally, more money than he could count or know what to do with. It washed over him in waves, and though he had spend much of his adult life supplying friends, donating to worthy causes, buying lunches for beggars, his bank account refused to erode. His ongoing charity binge left him exhausted, yet the moment he attempted rest, currency and coins surged up to his chin, like the tide in Scrooge McDuck’s money bin.
Living in the least ostentatious apartment in Pittsburgh that his ravening funds permitted, he had contemplated a change of identity or the lure of the Trappists (and for an Irishman, the vow of silence is an extreme contemplation indeed), and ever more dangerous fantasies of self-destruction. Until the day he picked up a fateful issue of Mother Earth News, with its six-page polemic on a New England ecological sinkhole bearing the impression of his uncle’s thumb.
James Moloney had rolled the magazine into a tube and slapped it, repeatedly, with increasing violence, against the wall of his apartment. A neighbor had returned the assaults verbally, but Moloney did not hear. With less than five minutes consideration, he vowed to bring the downfall of his uncle’s evil empire. “He’s behaving like an Englishman,” he boomed to his astonished friends, a complete and perfect motivation for his resolve.
Before exiting Pittsburgh, with the best of legal assistance he diverted the main river of his wealth, along with several tributaries, into a blind trust. He could not stem their flow, but at least he need not be shamed by or benefit from their erosions. To pay the pitifully small mortgage on his yellow and green home, he worked as part-time garage mechanic and odd-jobbed at minuscule fees for families too poor or disinclined to organize their own repairs. Often he took nothing for his labor, returning home, stomach rumbling, to his box of crackers and the spoiled milk in his refrigerator.
Watching his uncle’s depredations at close hand had, perhaps, completed the addling of his brain, which in turn led to his forming a local four-man underground. The other members of the conspiracy were Pete Linquist, a sub-foreman at the foundry, Merle Dedaner, a floor jobber, and Newt Newton, an equally addled import from Ohio who worked at the town grocery store, a nexus for local gossip. They took care not to be seen together too often, except as drinking companions at the Jade Tavern. Their cover was complete: None suspected them, for, since they had accomplished nothing, there was nothing to suspect them of.
Home from his expedition to the conspirators’ message bag, Moloney took from his pocket the irregular grayish lump retrieved from the cave. He turned it this way and that, held it against the windowed sunlight of his kitchen, suspended it by tongs over the Roper’s flame. In no way did it react or reveal. What was this thing, and what was its clandestine presence meant to convey? Moloney had deposited a small sketch in the bag, identifiable, certainly, perhaps even useful. The mineralish blob left by way of exchange said nothing to him. He returned it to his pocket, then removed a clutch of small tools from the upper cabinet nearest the sink and an old electric toaster from the cabinet beneath the sink. For the next 45 minutes he tore down the little machine and reassembled it with minor modifications. When plugged in, it smoked initially from the presence of dislodged crumbs before settling to a hot purr. He tested it with a slice of bread, and it heaved the toast up delightfully brown.
Moloney arranged the tools in a partitioned cloth wrap that had been hanging on a wall hook, adding a few items more from the cabinets. The resulting bundle, tied with a white shoelace, held two sixes of standard slotted screwdriver, two of Phillips, a short awl, a pair of pliers with an effective wire-cutter, two chisels (quarter- and full-inch widths), a rasp, a file, a shortened hacksaw blade, a six-inch adjustable wrench, and a square of 80-grade silicon carbide sandpaper.
Out at the street curb, he traded this package for the tool roll normally strapped to the bicycle’s frame. At the last moment, he untied both and transferred into the new wrap the bike’s tire-iron and patch kit. He tossed the reduced bicycle roll onto the doorstep and pedaled up and over the crest of the town’s minor ridge.
Below him, the Cordwainer Foundry and Plating Company filled a narrow valley that held no obvious living thing this Saturday but a pair of workmen oddly shadowed at the side of the loading deck. The woodland halted its advance halfway down the hill, along a wavering line, the leaves on the downhill side brown and crinkled. A fine silver-tan dust covered every surface, blunting the sunlight. Mead Creek traversed the valley, a natural collector for the runoff from the poisoned land. The whole seemed the haunt of alien beings who had blasted it clean of all that might threaten their unearthly bodily functions.
Moloney coasted down the narrow road, the only direct link between town and foundry. The main truck route slid along the valley floor like a sidewinder crossing the desert. The foundry buildings, rectangular, of some pale green substance that came in sheets, were connected by catwalks and enclosed chutes. Piled near the buildings, mineral mountains baked and bled into the soil.
Just above the forest’s ignominious end, Moloney hauled his conveyance off the road. There was little place for concealment in the spindly, stunted growth. He removed the tool kit and lowered the bicycle onto its side, piling over it lengths of dead limb and handfuls of leaves. He tried the tool kit in various pockets, where it took on the aspect of a misplaced loaf of bread. At last he slipped it high under his belt, in the rear, lowering his shirttail over it. He thumped down the steep road and into the unnatural silence of an industry taking siesta.
Through personal surveillance and input from his fellow conspirators, Moloney had become familiar with the foundry’s rudimentary security system. As Uncle Michael was the sort who took frugality on a bender, that system’s main components were Silas Pennule, 69 years old, and his barely functional son, Gabe, who patrolled the buildings on a haphazard schedule, proceeding more by lurch and slither than by plan.
Now in the open, Moloney chugged toward the loading dock, where the two forms puttering with binding straps and cardboard litter took on recognizable lines: Merle Dedaner and Pete Linquist.
“What in the pissing lord?” Moloney questioned himself.
Dedamer made odd motions with his right hand, flicking it back and forth across the leg of his overalls while observing Moloney’s progress from the corner of his eye. Linquist’s desultory poking and prodding wound down to the nervous bending of a metal strip.
Moloney put his hands on the raised concrete apron of the loading dock and craned his neck.
“You got the message,” said Dedaner, trying to keep his lips immobile.
“From the bag.”
“That misshapen thing? What form of message was that?”
“Ssssh.” Linquist dropped his bit of metal, which ticked twice in the dead, hot air. “We can’t just stand around,” he said in a ringing whisper.
“Seems you have been.”
Dedaner leaned close. “You should have gone straight to the dip vats.” He extracted from his pocket a lump much like the one left in the bag for Moloney. “See?”
“Merle, you’ve just flat been breathing too many fumes.” Moloney vaulted onto the dock, and all three hurried through a small door cut into the main roll-down.
“Where’s Peckerhead?” Moloney asked.
“Went by on rounds about 15 minutes back, shouldn’t bother us for awhile.” Linquist picked up another piece of scarp to bend.
They walked the length of the vast internal storage area in silence. As Dedaner tugged at the door connecting it with the plating room, Moloney blocked it with his foot. “This is damned strange,” he said. “How is it we all come to be here when I hadn’t yet committed a plan to you?”
“Didn’t Newt tell you?” asked Dedaner.
“How would Newt tell me? I haven’t seen him in a week. This sort of thing is anyway supposed to be passed through the bag, that’s what it’s for. Instead I get lumps of matter from the earth’s creation. You never told me about this problem with your mind.” Moloney was half a hand taller and half a foot thicker than Dedaner. The latter’s tugs at the door were ineffectual.
“We’re here, ain’t we?” said Linquist. “Let’s get the job done.”
Moloney heaved a large volume of air in the form of loud words. “Just what sort of fucking job is this you’re talking about when we haven’t so much as communicated? I came down here to do some constructive eyeballing of the situation, and I find you making a public spectacle of yourselves, a clown show on a Saturday afternoon. Take this goddam thing,” he said,withdrawing the odd mass from his pocket and handing it to Dedaner. “Now you have two.”
“Quiet it. Peckerhead’ll hear us,” said Linquist.
“Then we tell him we’re mice and he will believe us,” said Moloney. “I brought along some of those dog-biscuity things he likes. The dip vats?”
“That’s where we’d start from,” said Linquist.
“How is it then you decide to be going there?”
“We’ve got the plan,” said Dedaner.
“And are you free to tell anyone other than St. Joseph?”
“We’re gonna drop the plates in the vats,” said Linquist, “and let them stay.”
“What fun. Does this plan have a practical purpose?”
“It’ll mess things up,” said Linquist.
“It might well do that,” said Moloney, “and the things most likely messed up will be us. Where’s Newt if he knows about this?”
“He’s lookout,” said Linquist, “in town. He’s seeing if anybody comes down.”
“He calls us. On the phone.”
“While you’re heaving hundred-pound steel plates into a tank. Had you maybe thought Peckerhead might also decide to answer the phone?”
Dedaner put his finger to his lips and opened the door. The room they entered was both silent and alive, as though the current that powered the electroplating units during the week was waiting impatiently in the wires. The air smelled of ozone, and brittle traces of metal invaded their nostrils. Linquist flattened his body against the cinderblock wall of the massive space, as a cockroach might sneak across a sunlit floor.
“What are you, hung over?” asked Moloney.
Dedaner eyed the exposed walls and the great quiet machines. “This isn’t going tow work.”
The door they had just closed opened again and emitted a small, lank-haired man, Gabe Pennule, known universally as Peckerhead. He looked at the three as though he might have seen something similar in the recent past.
“This is quite some setup,” said Moloney in Gabe’s general direction, “an impressive lot of equipment. I’m impressed. There’s a certain sense of….” He rolled his hands slowly over each other.
“I know you. You don’t belong. Whatcha doin’ here?”
“I came,” said Moloney, “to look at this impressive machinery when it isn’t working, as a way so I wouldn’t maybe get hurt like I might if it was working. Machinery at rest can be very peaceful. There’s nothing quite as calm, for instance, as an electric clock that’s not plugged in.” He beamed a huge smile.
“Uh,” said Gabe.
“And since you’re here.” Moloney dipped into a pocket and extracted a small plastic bag of oyster crackers. He removed two and held them out. “Come on. For you. Come get them.”
The scrawny little man moved forward, his hand outstretched. At the last instant he snatched it back and shook his head. “Ain’t spose to take nothin’ from people when they’s where they ain’t spose to be.”
“Who told you a thing like that?” asked Moloney, incredulous.
Moloney edged closer, sly and conspiratorial. “I wasn’t planning on telling you this, but I guess I’ll have to. You’re too smart for us. Now the thing is we are supposed to be here, but nobody’s supposed to know that except the big boys. Understand? It’s hush-hush. Secret. If the word gets out… well, you know.” He turned up his palms in potential resignation.
“Mr. Moloney didn’t say nothin. Muh dad didn’t say nothin.”
Moloney clapped Gabe on the shoulder. “Exactly! You caught the whole of it right off. Nobody’s supposed to know! So you’d best come along with us, just in case.” He picked up a limp hand and inserted an oyster cracker. Gabe put the cracker into his mouth and crushed it with grinding circles of his jaws, as though masticating a galaxy into being.
Pete Linquist took down a gallon can of minerals spirits from a wall shelf and motioned to Gabe. “Come on, we’d better get started, huh? We ain’t got all day.” He moved toward the plating apparatus, unscrewing the can top as he walked.
“This isn’t going to work,” Dedaner muttered again.
Moloney and Gabe followed behind Linquist. Dedaner, the floor jobber, brought up the rear, his head swinging wide, as though searching fro an exit which, in his eleven years with Cordwainer Foundry, he had previously overlooked.
Though complex in process, the electroplating tanks worked on the simplest of principles. Any metal object – most often an eight to ten foot length of cheap sheet steel – could be attached to the cathode of the electrical system and thus given a negative charge. When lowered into a bath of trolling ions, the positive wanderers, arriving from the anode holding the plating material, humped the big sheet with such fury as to become one with it, providing an even coating in as active a process as a normally quiescent metal might experience in a lifetime.
With the current off, the sheet could hang till doomsday experiencing nothing but slow corrosion. This fact lay at the heart of Linquist’s murky scheme. Each month the electrodes were lifted clear of the chemical liquid, and the tanks were drained and cleaned.
Today, near the end of that cycle, they held their foulest brew. Should large sheets of steel be immersed in those potent waters over a full weekend or inactive electrical current, who knows what might happen to the sheets, to the tanks, to the electrodes themselves? Certainly not Pete Linquist, but he fantasized something like the complete solidification of the foundry.
He began cleaning a projecting arm with a rag dipped in the mineral spirits, whisking away non-existent spots and blemishes for Peckerhead’s benefit. Moloney, meanwhile, steered Gabe toward a corner and leaned close. “We have to talk about this,” he said.
Cut off from the line of sight of the others, Moloney pulled Gabe’s hands behind his back. The little man began to struggle, but Moloney shushed him. “We’ve got to make this look good, right? What will the big guys think if they come in and you are just wandering around? Later, we’ll make a little phone call when we leave, so they’ll find you and you don’t get hungry. And I’ll leave the crackers.”
“Much dad –”
“Your dad will be unholy proud of you, Gabe. I was talking to him yesterday and he said, ‘That son of mine, he always knows what to do.’ Don’t ball up your fists, it makes it difficult to tie the knots.” Moloney picked a length of jute twine from the floor and whipped it around Gabe’s wrists in a figure eight, then bound off the crossover with a few more turns. He tied a needlessly elaborate knot and patted the man lightly on the shoulder. “All right? Not too tight?”
“It’s all I could find. Nylon would chafe less, but it doesn’t hold a knot. Now we’ll need the gag.”
“I dunno. Don’t sound like it’s, uh… muh dad shouldof said.”
“He didn’t think you’d come through here just now, and anyway it’s more realistic-like, right? More natural.” Moloney kicked through the leavings behind a small table, rejecting a rag soaked with a substance that stank. He folded a second rag so the clear side faced out and slipped the gag through Gabe’s mouth. “Okay? It’ll be a little dry for you, but we’ll call, you’ll be all right. Your dad will give you a big hug. He’s the hugging kind?”
Gabe shook his head.
Unable to unearth a stout rope, Moloney undid his belt and cinched the little man to a two-inch vertical pipe, running the belt through the bonds between his hands, tying more twine over the leather when he could find no other way to keep the clumsy tourniquet from loosening.
He stepped back and smiled broadly. “That should do it. Now I think you can slide down into a sit. Less tiring. Of course, with the gag you can’t get to your crackers. I’ll leave them anyway, so there’s something to eat when they get you undone.” He placed the plastic bag by the pipe. “Just don’t worry. It’ll be all right.”
Moloney returned to the plating room with his soundless steps to find Dedaner and Linquist on their knees beside one of the tanks. Linquist whispered dramatically, “Where is he?”
“Resting in a corner, in close communication with what I think is the heating system.”
“What did you do? asked Dedaner “Oh Jesus, what did you do, your pants are falling down.”
“You weren’t….” Linquist’s eyes went round.
Moloney turned over the tops of his trousers twice to hold them in place. “You two haven’t the sense God gave an ant’s uncle. I’ve tied the nitwit to a pipe and he thinks he’s a classical hero. When that old fart his father kicks his behind he will be most surprised. Shit.” With a loud clatter, the tool kit he had tucked into the back of his pants slid down one leg and unraveled on the floor. He picked up the tools and examined them with sudden revelation.
“Well. Here’s another plan for you, since we’re here, and a better, more consequential one, which also has simplicity on its side. How is it they drain these tanks?”
“They’ve each got valves,” said Linquist, “to let it out into hoses that go into tanker trucks. The stuff at the bottom gets flushed when they get to the cleaning after, and it’s run off to the creek. They always say it’s all going into the trucks, but everybody knows.”
“Is there a way to cut into the hoses here, inside the building?”
“It’s hoses outside, pipes inside,” said Dedaner. “We could break the unions. But what for?”
“To let a few hundred gallons of high corrosive liquid eat the guts of this stinking establishment, instead of running out and chewing holes in the valley. Now, would that be more fun or not?”
The conspirators traded stares, then Linquist began to chuckle like a hand-cranked motor. “Hey goddamn, god-dam”
“I spose,” said Dedaner, head bowed.
“You spose what?” said Moloney.
“What about Peckerhead?”
Moloney hooked his thumbs into his adjusted waistband. “What is there in these stewpots that could damage him more than he’s already mangled?”
“He knows who we are.”
“In some vague sense.”
Linquist, with no metal strip to bend, cracked his knuckles, creating small, annoying reports. “We’ll go to jail.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t do it,” said Dedaner,
“Not do it?” exploded Moloney. “Then what is the purpose of all this, of us? Are you to be a lickspittle to some capitalist for the rest of your life?”
Dedaner straightened, indignant. “I ain’t no – a what?”
“We are here for a purpose, as you rightly said. We have even begun to have a glimmer of what the purpose could come to. Now are we to throw it aside because of what a halfwit who exists on soup crackers might chirp? When we are perched on the doorstep of accomplishment?”
Linquist shook his head. “We don’t none of us have families. You said that was good for social activists, no one to worry about. It don’t help, though, to end up in jail. I don’t want to go to no jail.”
Moloney thumped his chest. “I will take the brunt. You may take it on the lam. I can get money if needs be, as well you know. What’s mine is yours. I will support you in the style of whatever, somewhere else. Does that at least suit you?”
Both men considered silently, eyes downcast. Moloney took this as assent. He walked back to where the watchman sat at the base of his captivating pipe, his arms at a painful angle to his shoulder sockets.
“I didn’t set this up in the best form,” said Moloney. He heaved the bound figure upright and massaged his shoulders “Here.” He placed a chair next to Gabe, hoisted him upward along the pipe, toed the chair so it lay under his feet, and dropped him down on it, standing.
“There’s going to be some material flowing that you shouldn’t be immersed in. So stay where I’m setting you. And we can stow the gag, who would hear you anyway?”
Moloney removed the wad of cloth from the captive’s mouth and opened the bag of oyster crackers. “Let’s make you a way to get at these.” Sifting through the detritus behind the table, he extracted a four-foot length of wire which he wrapped around Gabe’s head, pinching and twisting to hold it in place. From its end he formed a crude hook, to which he attached the cracker bag. He tilted the watchman’s head back, which brought the bag close to his mouth, but the restraint slipped over one ear.
“Eat this one now.” Moloney fed Gabe a cracker. “The rest will have to wait. You’re all right?”
“I can’t feel nothin in my hands.”
“You haven’t got anything in your hands.”
“We can’t afford to loosen the bonds. It would look… suspicious. Right?”
“Here’s another one.” Moloney popped a second cracker into Gabe’s mouth. “But don’t start yelling till after we’re gone. It might distract us.”
Linquist and Dedaner were busy at one of the pipe unions, Dedaner holding a 36-inch pipe wrench onto the painted junction, Linquist jumping on and off the end.
“Sucker’s on there,” said Linquist.
“The valve,” said Moloney. “Where’s the valve?” Dedaner pointed to the base of the tank. A swelling in the pipe was surmounted by a small wheel painted red.
“If we just hustle the top off the collar, we can pop the valve,” said Moloney. “You people should know your own operations. Damned American intellectual laziness.” He fitted his small adjustable wrench over the inch-wide collar nut below the red wheel. When it refused to budge, he slammed it with his fist, hurting his hand. Linquist brought over the big wrench, but it was too bulky to fit under the handle.
“There must be a hammer in this damned place,” said Moloney.
Linquist found one leaning against the wall and Moloney tapped away at the end of his wrench, banging progressively harder until the room rang with echoes and sympathetic vibrations. Gabe made a mild complaining sound from the adjoining room, and Dedander scurried to comfort him.
“This is a mess,” said Linquist.
“It’s for shit,” said Moloney, but at that moment the paint bond broke, and the nut turned. “Halleluia.”
With the nut fully loosened, Moloney started to unscrew the valve stem. Linquist waved a restraining hand, too late. The stem blew free and a geyser of electroplating solution erupted toward Moloney’s face. “Christ, his mother and all the fucking saints,” said Moloney as he flipped backwards and to the side, surprisingly agile for so large a man. The escaping liquid steadied to a three-foot gusher, a Lilliiputian oil well.
“Outside!” said Moloney, “Get out there and block that hose so this crap doesn’t bleed off into the woods.”
Linquist ran pell mell out a loading-dock door. Dedaner watched the circle of glop that had reached Moloney, still piled in half recline.
“Get your stupid ass in gear,” said Moloney, as he pulled himself up. “We’ve got a half dozen valves to hit.” Together, they scrabbled up the tools and trotted to the next tank, breaking the valve loose just as the puddle lapped at their heels. Linquist returned and lent a hand. Within twenty minutes, eight tanks were draining across the 15,000 square feet of floor. Unmentionable chemicals ate at the revolutionaries’ shoes.
Moloney checked Peckerhead again, still shackled to the pipe. “You’ve really stood up, Gabe, made a name for yourself. Michael Moloney will no doubt have names for you as yet uncoined.”
“I don’t think you spose to be here.”
“You think what you will, the big boys will put you straight. And we’ll all share in the spoils. Right? Now rest up. I may take a bit longer than we thought to get that phone call through. To your dad or whoever. So it would be a good idea for you to do in these things.” He pushed two crackers into Gabe’s mouth at once. “I’d bring water, but the sink looks none too accessible.”
The three saboteurs slogged through the rising ionic soup and onto the loading dock, which fortunately stood a few inches above floor level, holding the vile muck in check. The sun had gone low, but summer heat still baked the wasteland of the valley. “The man’s a sinner,” said Linquist, looking out across the devastation wrought by Michael Moloney.
“The man’s an Irish asshole,” said James Moloney, “of all known assholes the most evil.”
“We don’t have jobs no more,” said Dedaner.
Moloney patted his endless array of pockets until he discovered his wallet and handed over its grimy monetary contents. “Cut over to Sable and see how far this will take the two of you on Greyhound, You’ve got a day’s grace. Probably. I’ll use the bicycle.”
Dedaner and Linquist looked fleetingly at each other, avoiding Moloney’s eyes. “Go on,” said Moloney. “Send me a note when you get wherever. They’re not permitted to interfere with the mails.” At the ruined treeline, the conspirators parted with restrained handshakes.
Moloney retrieved his steed after brushing loose the concealing leaves. Looking across the valley, he laughed for the second time that day, two quick, deep has into the day’s silence.
He coasted through town, past his uncle’s walled estate, into the evening gloom of the woods bordering Mead Creek. The birds had done their job for the day, the insects had burrowed into the tree bark and paper nests of their homes. All that was left was the biting smell from the water and a rosy tint above the failing covered bridge.
Moloney dismounted and strolled to the end of the bridge. He placed one foot on the cracked beam where the floorboards had rotted and vanished. Balancing easily, he moved out over the stream. The wood beneath him creaked, and the entire bridge protested with a mild shiver. At the center of the span, perhaps eight feet above the lazy flow of water, Moloney leapt high and came down, smack. The beam shrieked like a far-off murder, split gunshot-hard, and parted, twisting the structure of the bridge so that it shat rusted nails and patches of diseased flooring.
Moloney held to a strut to keep from pitching through the great gap he had created. Brachiating like an ape, he swung above the broken timbers that had fallen into a new, temporarily stable configuration. When he reached his starting point, he dropped onto the grass giving way to the annual onslaught of nettle and jewelweed.
He wiped his hands on his jury-rigged trousers and mounted his bicycle. He did not look back. By the arched entrance through his uncle’s stone wall, he paused to place an envelope in the roadside mailbox.