My father worked in the steel mill, spending long hours among the molten metal that solidified into a mass as hard as his own will. My mother was a nurse, caring for the injuries that came all too often from the mouth of the mill and restrained once healthy men to wheelchairs.
From a young age their resilience formed me. They tolerated no weakness, teaching me to be as persevering as themselves, to raise my chin when other children cried, and to tarry on despite hardship. When I broke my arm at the park falling from a tree at age nine, I walked myself home, followed by the shrill screams of those who had not been injured but had merely seen bone protrude from flesh. When the winter blizzards gripped our school heaters with their icy fingers, causing my breath to frost during class, I alone did not complain among my classmates.
“Never stoop.” My father always said, “These others, they were born children. You were born a man. Take pride in that, son.”
I did, and I never questioned it. He never gave me reason to. It was who we were.
When I turned eighteen and graduated high school, I started work at the mill along with Geoffrey, a close friend of mine from school. Geoffrey was the same build as me, with curly hair that tufted about the ears matching his brown eyes, and a slight limp on his left foot from where he was constantly battling an infected toe. He had smile that could melt the heart of any girl in the city, But instead of melting, their hearts broke that summer when Geoffrey never smiled again.
It was our fifth week in the mill. Already we had become accustomed to the dark atmosphere illuminated by glowing metal, along with the waves of heat that leached sweat from our bodies. Geoffrey and I had been on our lunch break, and he rolled up the remains of a paper lunch sack and tossed it into a passing trash can.
“You know, the folks never did want me starting here,” Said Geoffrey between strides, hands in his pockets, “Pap always wanted me to work in the flower shop. Mum always wanted me in college. But hey, the money’s good, and I can’t complain.” Geoffrey’s family was significantly wealthier than mine, mainly due to an inheritance from his dead grandfather, and he worked the mill until his trust funds kicked in at age twenty one.
“Yup.” I said. We were almost back to our station, and shadowy machinery cranked about us, “Always knew I’d end up here- it’s in my blood. We’ll see how you last, Geoffrey.” I gave him a teasing shove, and he pushed back with a laugh. I aimed a punch, and in the commotion we never heard the warning shouts.
High above us the machinery shuddered as a steel support beam, hardened through years of exposed heat, shattered into two separate parts. We never saw the falling beam arcing down toward us, swinging like a pendulum with death at its tip.
It smashed between us, slamming into Geoffrey’s midsection and my left leg, instantly fragmenting bones into dust. I remember falling, heard the sound of my nose breaking against concrete and Geoffrey’s body dropping beside me, and then there was silence.
I awoke in a hospital room, medical cloth over my face and an IV in my arm. I coughed, my hand covering the bruises that splotched across my chest, as I heard my mother above me.
“Porter? Porter, are you awake?” Her voice trembled.
“Yes.” I moaned, coughing again and trying to sit up. I felt her arm prevent me, and coughed again.
“Stop, don’t move. You took a major hit back there, and it’s going to take a while for you to recover. We were worried about you, Porter. So worried.”
“I want to check on Geoffrey.” I said, swinging a leg off the bed. And then I stopped.
Only one leg hung over the bed, and I ran my hands down to my waist. To my horror, only one leg was there.
“My.. My leg?”
“I’m sorry Porter. The doctor’s couldn’t reconstruct it. It’s gone from the hip.”
“What about Geoffrey?”
“He’s, he’s gone too, Porter. The funeral was a week ago. But I’m so happy you made it back.” I laid there motionless as she cried, tears of joy and sadness falling on my sheets.
After three weeks the doctors released me to go home, and my mother cared for me for the next month until I reached a recovery. I could walk again with the aid of an aluminum crutch, but after the accident the mill refused to hire me again on the floor. And I refused to work in an office, just as I’d refused to start wearing a fake leg.
As the mill rejected me, I turned to other opportunities around the city. Jobs were sparse for someone with no degree, my low grades, and one leg, but after a week of applications a tailor shop on the east side of town offered to hire me with instructions to arrive the following week.
A half hour early I arrived at the shop, which was nestled deep in an alleyway between a chinese take out shop and a dry cleaners. The shop smelled, a musty scent infused with earthy aromas. I walked through a short hallway of suits before arriving at a countertop, where the owner looked down on me from thick spectacles.
“Are you the help I hired?” He asked, a frown creasing his face.
“That’s me.” I said, tapping my crutch against the ground as he walked around the counter. He looked me over, the frown creasing deeper.
“You’ll do. I’m Lee Cavo.” He said, and waved at me to follow him into a back room, “I built this business from the ground up. You hear me? Straight up from the ground itself. I sell used suits, all in nearly pristine condition, which is where you come in. Some suits may be a little, well, dirty. I only take the best designs and brands, but people do not always care for them as they should. So your primary position is to clean them.“
“Sounds simple enough.” I said, “What do I wear in to work?”
“Do you have a suit?”
“Yeah, I’ve got one.”
“Uh, well I can go check.”
“If you don’t know the brand, you probably shouldn’t be wearing it in. Here, I’ll lend you two.” He perused the shelves, eyeing my size as he sifted through suits.
“Ah, these will do. Just your size, and just came in this month. Go ahead and try it on.”
I walked to the changing room and tried on the suit. The tailor was right- the suits fit well, needing no adjustments for my size, and somehow the fabric on one felt familiar. Or perhaps it was the smell that was familiar, in a way that made me shift as if I did not belong.
Lee Cavo showed me how to clean the suits, using a method he had perfected over the years. As his business grew and he was able to sell secondhand suits for cheaper than any other business in the city, he soon was unable to keep up with cleaning all the suits, and hired me as a result.
For weeks I wore the first suit, avoiding the second, more familiar one whenever possible by leaving it in a closet at work. The suits I cleaned in the back always had similar stains, light brushings of dirt that covered the exterior of their fabric. Sometimes odors accompanied the suits, and it often took several cleanings to eliminate them.
Then, one day, I left the jacket of my suit at home by accident and was forced to put on the second suit from the closet. Lee had just picked up the a monthly shipment of suits from his provider, and deposited them in the back room for me to clean. He was in a terrible mood that morning, from the moment I started work it was hectic, and I hurried from suit to suit as fast as possible.
In my haste I spilled some chemicals onto my left knee, and felt them seep into the suit and onto my skin. They itched, and I rubbed them into the fabric as I trotted over to the sink to wash them away, limping at a small pain in my left toe that I attributed to a blister.
I flipped the cold water on, wetting a rag to clean off my knee, and then stopped. I looked down.
Where my left knee should have been, my pants were splotched with chemical, too low for me to have felt due to my missing left leg. I turned, and behind me the crutch still rested against the wall, a solid ten feet away from me. But I could distinctly remember trotting over to the other side of the room on both feet.
I swallowed, feeling again the empty void where my leg was gone, and returned to work while pushing the thought from my mind. As the hours passed, I fell into the monotony of my work.
A specific tie jarred me from my daydreams, one so ugly I could not believe that anyone had actually printed it. Flowers covered its surface, and I laughed at their arrangement. They were alternating roses and daisies, and anyone should know those two flowers were never meant to mix. As the son of a florist, I especially knew. As a son of a florist-
I choked, my thoughts stopping, and coughed. My chest burned with each cough, feeling as if bruises covered my entire torso.
My father worked in the mill. Geoffrey’s father was the florist.
Wiping the sweat from my palms, I sat in a chair, jamming my hands into my pockets. And deep down in my jacket pocket, I felt a slip of paper that must have been missed when the suit was cleaned.
Pulling it out, I read the slip.
Flipping it over, the back was marked with the name of the company that had printed it.
Mariel County Funeral Home
I turned, and looked at my cleaning station. Small mounds of fresh dirt covered the counter. Not just dirt. Earth.
Without another word, I slipped out of the tailor shop. It was a friday, and Lee would assume I had left early. At home, I lit my father’s charcoal grill in the backyard, and burned the suit until the ashes fluttered away in the wind.
“Goodbye, Geoffrey.” I whispered.
The next day I awoke early, and parked across the street from the tailor shop. At eleven, Lee left the shop, opening his trunk and placing a pair of shovels inside. Then his car left the parking lot, turning left onto the highway and driving ten miles out of the city.
In the suburbs he pulled into a church with a small cemetery in the back, and parked at a spot close to the back.
I could see him in the front seat of his car, binoculars raised to his eyes, trained on the suit in the open casket at the funeral across the cemetery.
People are often buried in their best clothes.