More Like Home

MORE LIKE HOME
Matt Denis
Issue No. 11 – March 2016

I.

At noon, they take lunch. From the top drawer of a tool chest in the corner of the workshop, Benny takes two plates, two napkins, two enamel coffee cups, some salt and pepper, and a bottle of hot sauce. Freckles splits what’s left of the coffee in his thermos between the cups as they sit down. An orange generator hums and rumbles in the corner of the room, filling the silence and powering two heaters they’ve got set up nearby.

Benny tries to mix it up with lunch. Sometimes he brings cold cuts; sometimes he cooks noodles at home the night before and packs a jar of sauce. Freckles, he knows without looking, will have a sub from the gas station down the street, and will load it with the hot sauce. Neither of them really ever uses the salt or pepper, but Benny still likes having it there. Makes the plant seem more like home.

One of the stray dogs that nose around the place all day pads into the room, feet silent on the rubble, and sniffs around the table before curling up at Benny’s feet. Benny tears off a corner of his sandwich and drops it.

“You know what’s funny?” he asks.

Freckles doesn’t say anything, just looks over the rim of his cup at Benny. He looks older when he’s sulking, Benny thinks; the lines in his face a little deeper, his greasy gray hair stringier beneath his hat and where it comes to rest on his shoulders.

“The dogs don’t have names.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means we never named the dogs. We’ve been coming here for over a year now and I don’t think I’ve seen every room yet. I don’t know. It’s just funny.”

“Fuck that,” Freckles says.

“What?”

“You don’t get to do that. You could get treatment. I could go with you. But I won’t do this goodbye tour shit.”

Outside, it’s early December and they say it might snow today. The wind cuts a low whistling path through all of Packard’s broken windows. The landscape is scrubbed raw and weedy. In the distance, Detroit juts out of the horizon, half-covered by fog, like a mirage.

Benny stifles a cough and pictures shreds in his lungs glowing. He tries to look Freckles in the eye, but he’s digging at something under his fingernail.

***

II.

The Packard Plant stopped making cars in 1958. For a while after, a few companies moved quietly in and out of the complex, using it for storage. Plywood theater sets are still rolled into the corners, boas and robes snaking out of boxes beside them; a few doors over, a fleet of broken-down long haul trucks rusts idly. Remnants of a shoe warehouse—leather laces, cedar trees, dust-covered cans of black polish—sit in long-forgotten piles on the second floor, picked at by looters every now and again. Sometimes Freckles swears he can smell varnish, the gloss of his father’s wingtips, the ones he only ever wore to weddings and funerals, stagnant in the late morning air.

It’s been empty for a decade now. Nobody owns it and nobody seems to be coming for it. All the work went south, where they don’t organize and negotiate the types of pensions that will float Benny and Freckles for the rest of their lives.

The city is disappearing, Benny and Freckles agree. The streets are empty. The places their fathers went for drinks and wings after work are closed. Their own friends from the plant have long since moved to the suburbs, or to Florida, and don’t call, and the houses they left behind are brittle skeletons with their roofs caved, or blackened from the inside by Devil’s Night arson. Plywood over the windows, graffiti over that.

Benny and Freckles keep showing up at the plant because it’s the only thing they recognize anymore. There’s no real project beyond being there and remembering. Most of what they do is maintenance: they patch holes in the plaster walls, clear rubble, replace light bulbs, hunt fire hazards, and put the fires out when they don’t get to the hazards in time. There’s no rush anymore, no assembly line, no constant drone of machinery, or voice of God foreman behind glass on the second floor, punching the intercom button. No paycheck that depends on anything. No paycheck at all.

Still, in the plant, nothing is a surprise. Their bodies already know what to do; haven’t ever done anything else. At night they linger in the parking lot before going home—Benny to Poletown, Freckles to Hamtramck—shooting the shit and picking out the dark pockets of extinguished streetlights in the distance. Looters strip the copper wire to sell, Freckles tells Benny, and they shake their heads. We’re the dam against the coming tide, Benny says.

***

III.

Benny finds a box truck after lunch whose lift gate is rusted to hell. Freckles, giving it a look over, can almost put his finger through the worst spots, the metal turning to orange dust and smudging his fingers.

“You want it?” Benny asks from across the room, wheeling the welding cart to the truck.

Freckles laughs. “Welding and me? Not friends anymore,” he says, holding his pocked arm up as proof. “I’ll find you the metal, though.”

Benny’s a fantastic welder. Freckles wipes socket wrenches in the corner and watches him work. Amidst the pale gray stillness of the workshop, Benny is half-obscured in glow, like an overexposed photograph; time seems to stop, or at least slow to the rhythm of the wand dragged precisely over the seam of the lift gate. Freckles pictures the muscles in the back of Benny’s arm, hidden under his work jacket, humming the same way they did 30 years ago. He remembers the way his own breath used to sound under the mask during a weld, hollow and important. Remembers hovering over the chaos the wand whipped up: listening to it, manipulating it, galvanizing it. Making something that would glow for a bit and cool to a patch-up.

When Benny cuts the power and lifts the mask, Freckles watches the light in the room reorganize itself in a religious silence and knows that the World looks different because they forced it to.

“Still got it?” he asks, walking over to where Benny is wiping his forehead with the sleeve of his jacket.

“See for yourself,” Benny says with mock modesty.

Freckles doesn’t need to look to know that it will be flawless. With a coat of black paint over the whole bit, it would look brand new. But that’s another day, he knows, or not at all. He makes a show of poring over the work anyway, bringing his face inches from the lift, wiping his hand over the seam and then smelling it.

“Not bad,” he says, squeezing Benny’s shoulder, “with me retired, you might just be the best welder here.”

Benny smiles. “Fuck you, too,” he says.

***

IV.

Benny had the first cigarette of his life up the street from the Packard Plant when he was 13, huddled in his friend’s garage during a rain. His dad had been working doubles in the weeks since his mother left for Phoenix. She left him a nine-page letter explaining why, and he stuck it under his mattress, read it every week until he had it memorized, and then burned it.

They’d moved to a smaller place in Poletown when he started working on cars. His dad taught Benny how to change the oil in his Cadillac late on a Saturday night with the garage door open to a late autumn chill.

“This is your responsibility now,” he told Benny, who from then on would check the mileage every Sunday after dinner, and took all the shop classes he could at school.

He met Marion at a bar downtown when he was 22 and working second shift at Clark Street Assembly. She was a friend of a friend, and she was gorgeous. He asked his friend for her number and they went on seven dates before he kissed her. They got married a year later.

Freckles he met ten years later, when he moved to the Cadillac Plant in Hamtramck and they shared a workstation. Sometimes, orange weld showers would drift over to where Freckles was working, settling and smoldering on his sleeve. Benny worked on the other side of the station and never got hit. He used to feel guilty—sometimes he thought about switching sides, but he never did, and Freckles never asked. Even now, Benny can smell the bitter hint of briefly ignited cotton; can picture the nearly invisible road map of welts on Freckles’ forearm—the source of a nickname for him, a source of pride for both of them. Proof that things used to be made.

Marion got sick not long after he retired and didn’t make it far. She had a depressingly white hospital room that she shared with someone else, and a bunch of machines that made the inevitable hurt less for her. As for Benny, nothing made it hurt less. One time late in the process, after another round of unsuccessful chemo, she couldn’t even remember who he was, and she looked so different.

He was 62, drifting along a Mobius strip of depression and uselessness, when Freckles started calling every week to talk about the Packard Plant—their responsibility to it.

A couple months ago, at Detroit Mercy, the doctor told him that the cancer was in his lungs, that they didn’t catch it early. Benny sensed the loose thread smell of Marion’s perfume in the office, where it couldn’t have been anything else, and pictured a map of all his footsteps from the time he was born to right then. They’d all be in the same couple square miles—from Poletown, to the plants, to the street where he and Marion stayed; footprints the bright red of a heat map, so many overlapping that his neighborhoods were pure color.

And now he’s sweeping the workshop with Freckles after a weld, where the late afternoon sun on the dust and metal shavings makes a glittering tornado, and he’s not afraid to die. But he doesn’t want to be alone. He’s thankful for Freckles, needs him, in a way that he doesn’t seem to have the ability to express. He was only able to tell him about he cancer at all because it was hurting too much to swallow the coughing fits all day. I can’t do this without you, he should tell him now. Or: I love you. But instead he points his broom like a cane and makes his voice quake geriatric.

“I tell ya, Sonny, back when I was a kid, a Packard was the car to have,” he says. Freckles glances up at him, but only for a second, and then goes back to sweeping.

“Fine. Sulk, then,” Benny says.

***

V.

Most nights after work, when he gets home, Freckles pours himself a whiskey and builds a fire. Home is a bungalow on Westwood Drive that he bought for $300 on foreclosure a couple months ago. He sold his old house, and a ’67 Mustang he was restoring, for start-up money and moved in. At the time, it wasn’t much more than a permanent tent. The first few nights he slept with the plywood still on the windows and woke up late in the morning on weekends, when the seams of light coming through were already bright yellow. His stuff, most of it, anyway, is still piled in the corner of the room just inside the door. He’s got a water heater now, but still no working furnace, and the paint is peeling in all the corners. On weekends, when he and Benny don’t go to Packard, Freckles walks to the hardware store up the road and hangs out for a while, buys a Turkish taffy, figures out what he should do next in the house, and what he’ll need to do it.

Or sometimes he’ll visit his father at the Home in Grosse Pointe, a few miles east. Freckles can still remember, as a kid, his father taking him to the garages of bachelor co-workers who’d bought Packards and kept them gleaming privately in their garages. He remembers being astounded by the chrome, the winged backs capped in red, round taillights. They looked indestructible and graceful at the same time—like something that would float rather than roll.

“You built this?” He would ask his father, who’d chuckle with is buddy and nod, saluting one another and the car with their cans of Stroh’s.

So it’s strange now, when he visits, to see Dad hunched and small in a chair by the window, looking out from behind the blue-gray film of his eyes. It’s hard to talk about much anymore.

“Where are you working these days?”

His father always starts that way, because works comes first.

“At the plant, Pop.”

“Which one?”

“Packard.”

A flicker of recognition at that. “Good for you,” his father says, “like it’s own city, that place.”

Freckles always just nods. He’s sure that his father knows the plant is closed. Down in some place inside him that’s been scraped open and scabbed closed too many times, and now is shriveling up with everything else. They haven’t made cars there since Freckles was born, and so their presence in his life has never been more than a mirage, something ghostly, a perfectly contoured outline in a few dimly remembered garages.

Freckles’ father helped him get his first job—at the Cadillac plant, across I-94 from Packard. By then it was already damn near the only option. Working there, it was impossible for Freckles to ignore that Packard was closed. He could always feel it out there, stretched long and low on the horizon, its shadowed recesses like heavy-lidded eyes, broken bits making the rows of windows look like a set of sucker-punched teeth grinning at him. He read in a newspaper editorial once that Packard was “the poster child for post-industrial blight,” and even if he didn’t entirely know what that meant, the words stuck with him. They made it seem like the plant was still churning, still producing something, even if it was something sad that no one could wrap their hands around. He found himself turning the words over in his cheeks with breakfast, or mouthing them to the rhythm of his work, like an invocation.

Anything that’s used up its usefulness has no choice but to start dying, decaying. Freckles prefers to be on the upswing. That’s why he moved. There was nothing wrong with his old house, no fear of the neighborhood being too dangerous, no major structural damage; hell, the two houses were the same size, even—a couple square feet from one another. It just got too stagnant. It didn’t need him anymore. There was nothing to do at night but turn on the TV, get a little drunk, and ride out the downswing.

He feels destined for Packard in the same way. He’s lived in Detroit his whole life, and Detroit never sat around and waited for things to die. It built them. And if anyone came looking for that city now, amidst the vacants and vagrants, he wanted them to be able to find it throbbing in his muscles, hardening into knots on his feet, getting stuck under his fingernails. That’s what he tells his father, who he knows can’t process it anymore. Still, it feels important to say.

He’s never told his father about Benny—afraid he’d say too much.

***

Earlier in the year, in late April, he and Benny were hanging tarp over some of the bigger broken windows while a soft rain fell. The Tigers were in Boston and they had the game on the radio—Detroit down one late, but with the bases loaded and their best hitter up.

“He’ll ground into a double play,” Benny said.

“Bullshit. He’s the MVP; this is what we pay him for,” Freckles said, and each of them stopped what they were doing and leaned a little toward the radio where the double play went 6-4-3 to end the threat. Freckles expected to see a smug look on Benny’s face, but instead saw him climb down the ladder, curse under his breath, and chuck his hammer into a pile of clutter on the opposite side of the room. He realized then that he loved Benny—for the way his heart ignored what his head told him was inevitable, for his openness, for how he still allowed the World to hurt him because the flip side was worse—and that he had for a very long time.

***

VI.

They quit working late in the afternoon, when there’s bits of purple backlighting the darkening gray sky, but they don’t go home. They sit in the front room and watch the snow falling in silence. Benny can hear laughter from the other side of the plant making its way to them. Normally they’d go check it out. Scavengers come for what machinery they can haul away, or what’s left of the wire in the walls. Sometimes it’s just kids, nosing around after school on a dare. A couple times, Benny and Freckles have stomped out fires that just seemed to materialize—one of the reasons the city wants to tear the place down. Today it doesn’t seem worth it. Most of the time, when they go looking for the voices, they can’t find them. And there’s so much refuse in the plant that it’s hard to know what’s missing. It’s getting impossible to keep the outside out. The only thing Benny’s able to know for sure is the fire, not the spark that started it. The empty space, but not what was taken.

He looks at Freckles, who seems to know what he’s thinking.

“What’s the point, right?” Freckles says. “Since we’re in the business of giving up now.”

Freckles won’t look at him, and Benny wonders if he’s crying.

“Alan, come on,” Benny says, and he can hear the pleading in his voice, the strangeness of the name, which still seems right somehow. Freckles scoffs through the wounded look on his face, grabs his coat off the back of the chair. Benny watches him leave through an empty space where a door used to be, out into the courtyard that separates the two wings of the plant. He follows him out there. The snow is pretty heavy now and Freckles turns his face up into it, squeezes his eyes shut, and takes a long breath through his nose.

“Don’t hold it against me,” Benny says to Freckles.

“Sorry, I plan to.”

“I want you to be there.”

Freckles finally looks at him.

“Be where?”

“You know. With me. At the end.”

Freckles laughs a little, his face like there’s a taste he can’t get out of his mouth.

“You’ve been walking around with this for months and you only told me today,” he says.

“I wanted to tell you sooner. I don’t know how to explain it, but I can’t bring myself to do much of anything lately. Like whatever I do will be tainted and sick when it comes out.”

“Do it anyway,” Freckles says. “That’s what you need my help for: fighting. Best part of throwing in the towel is that it’s easy. You don’t need anyone else.”

“It’s too late for treatment,” Benny says. “And I went through all that with Marion and it didn’t change a thing. It just made both of us feel worse.”

Freckles doesn’t say anything for a while. He never has much to say when Marion comes up.

“At the end,” he says, like he’s still trying to pull the words into an order that makes sense. Benny reaches for his hand, but Freckles pulls it away.

“I’m not your wife, man. You need something from me, so now I get to love you? That’s too late. Not worth it.”

Benny knows he should be surprised to hear that, but he’s not. Freckles turns his face upward again, and Benny follows his eyes. From where they’re standing it’s just layers of redbrick and snow. The archway is missing bricks, the rusted pale green of the steel scaffolding, the jagged rows of spaces where windows used to be. And inside, room after room of empty shadowed spaces, graffiti like neon on the concrete pillars, one after another. This could easily be the end of the world.

***

VII.

Benny doesn’t show for work the next day. Freckles sits in his car with the heat gushing until almost 10 before he goes in. He doesn’t leave at five, just sits in the yellowish light of the shop, humming to himself and looking around at everything left behind by all the people who didn’t care to embalm what they’d killed. He stays until the generator runs out, gathers up the gas cans to refill the next day, and exits into the half-dark. The wind is picking up, but Freckles can’t bring himself to go home. He realizes that he’s always been alone, but that now he’s lonely. And he understands what a difference that makes.

The rest of the week is more of the same. Freckles shows up a little later each day, and by Wednesday he’s given up hope of arriving to find Benny leaned against the brick, smoking, or blowing into his hands against the cold. Freckles knows that he’ll keep going to the plant every day, now only out of a sense of duty. Because things will always never be the same, but you still try to outlive them anyway.

Nights he takes the gas cans and walks the neighborhoods surrounding the plant. The world is quiet, covered in bluish shadow. Apparitions in mangy winter coats shove their hands into their pockets and talk under extinguished streetlights. Blocks of boarded up houses breathe out of their wounds at him. Even the inhabited streets are quiet—just the blue-washed flicker of televisions in dark living rooms. He walks until the snow leaks through the cracks in his boots and his toes go numb, before circling back to his car.

Pulling up with the gas cans a few weeks later, Freckles sees his front door ajar, a weak wedge of light spilling onto the front steps. The kid can’t be much more than 16. He’s got greasy black hair that hangs in strings to his shoulders and a Red Wings beanie that he’s pulled down over it, the logo swung to the back where Freckles can see it as he creeps up the front steps. The kid is going through his stuff; he’s rooting through the pile in the corner of the front room, and he’s laid out at his feet the things he’ll be taking with him. Freckles tallies the kid’s haul: a cordless drill, a small boombox, and half a bottle of whiskey. And he’s not done yet. He doesn’t hear Freckles enter the house behind him, and Freckles stands there for a second and feels the tables, finally, turned. For a few seconds, he knows he can inflict himself on the World. But instead he sighs and puts the gas cans down hard on the wood floor. The kid flinches and turns around the see Freckles there in the doorway.

The kid’s face is all fear for a second: eyes open wide and darting around the room. They’re the only part of him moving, the rest rigid and still. Freckles doesn’t say anything, just keeps looking between the kid and his pile on the ground with what he hopes is a determined amusement.

“Hey Justin,” the kid says to the empty room, and that’s when Freckles can hear the rustle in the kitchen and knows that someone else is here. The other kid has no fear in his face. He’s older than the first one, and his jacket is torn at the elbows, little bits of fluff tufting out at odd angles. Underneath, he’s got a white t-shirt, gone yellow with filth, with the Ford logo on it. When he smiles, Freckles can see that his teeth are graying and small in his mouth.

“Howdy,” he says, crossing to where Freckles is standing, “I guess this is your place? We won’t be long.”

Freckles feels sweat on his face, but doesn’t think he’s nervous.

“Fuck you,” he tells the kid, whose smile just gets bigger.

“Oh, ouch, man,” the kid says, clutching at his heart. “Why you gotta be so mean?”

Freckles finally blinks. “Help yourself,” he says, “there’s a toothbrush in the bathroom. I’d definitely be grabbing that if I were you.”

The smile goes out of the kid’s face and he licks his lips and looks at his partner, still crouched by the pile of loot. Freckles turns that way, too.

“Is this what you do?” He asks, “Is this your job?”

The younger kid just shrugs.

“Everyone has to make a living,” Justin says from beside Freckles, and stoops to pick up one of the gas cans from the floor. “This is definitely something we could use,” he says, popping the cap and splashing some on the floor at Freckles’ feet. From this close, Freckles can smell the warm rot of the kid’s breath; see his eyes like down power lines scraping the ground. He feels out of place in his own home, like it doesn’t belong to him anymore. He’s just drifting through, flotsam swept up in the tide. The kid pulls a book of matches from his pocket and lights one, eyes widening as he holds it in front of Freckles’ face.

“Don’t say no one ever did anything for you,” the kid says, blowing the match out and patting Freckles on the shoulder. “Let’s go,” he tells the other kid, who gathers up the pile of things they’re taking, and follows him out the door.

Freckles stands where he is for a long time with his eyes closed. He can smell the sulfur singe of the lit match lingering, and a long way away a siren is howling through the night. He thinks about Benny: the light seeping back into the room around him when he’s finished a weld; snow melting into drops on his boots, quivering a little before rolling off; his cracked fingernails and swollen knuckles that would probably make his touch rough. Probably.

***

VIII.

Benny’s house hasn’t changed since Marion died. Alone, he looks out of place in it. There’s still the floral print sofa in the sunken living room, feet disappearing into heavy soft carpet. The kitchen floor is linoleum, slick with fake shine, cupboards white, trimmed in unstained wood at the bottom. Above the mantel, the crystal figurines Marion collected are still lined up, looking out. Someday soon, Benny is going to die, Freckles thinks, and then a real estate agent will walk through with young couples who know vaguely that cars used to be built here, but little else. Who talk about art and authenticity and rebirth. They’ll find it charming, but move slowly through the house with the agent, talking about changes they’d make.

Benny had answered the door in his pajamas at 11 in the morning, and didn’t seem surprised or pleased or upset to see him. Just gaunt—Freckles felt a pang of something awful when he saw him, how different he looked.

They’re sitting on the couch now, eating the sandwiches Freckles brought over from a place in Corktown they both like, and Freckles is telling Benny about the break-in.

“I’m glad you’re alright,” Benny says, and pats Freckles on the hand, squeezing a little before he turns back to his sandwich.

“I just stood there,” Freckles says.

“Yeah, well,” Benny says and looks out the window at his frozen backyard.

They talk through lunch. About the plant, what needs done; about the type of lock Freckles should install on his front door; about friends they had back when everything was humming; about dying.

“You can’t just stay here,” Freckles tells him.

“Yeah, I know,” Benny says, “but I’ll be here for a while. Until I can’t stand it. Then I’ll call.”

“Call?” Freckles says.

“Yeah, the ambulance,” Benny says.

Around dusk, Freckles balls up the foil from the sandwiches and takes it to the kitchen. He washes the dishes in the sink and takes the garbage, which is overflowing, out to the curb. He changes the sheets on Benny’s bed to something flannel he finds in the closet between the master bedroom and the bathroom. When he comes back out into the living room, Benny is asleep on the couch. Freckles thinks about leaving a note, or a letter, but doesn’t. He pulls a chair in from the kitchen, and sits down.


Matt Denis is a graduate of Purdue University and a third-year fiction student in the MFA program at UMass Boston, where he’s currently at work on Something Worse, a collection of stories set in postindustrial Detroit, MI and Braddock, PA. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Breakwater Review and the Kenyon Review.





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