It has a been a miserable summer, the worst, the summer that began with the Boston bombing, the summer three girls were discovered chained to a radiator in a rust belt house of horrors, the summer of the George Zimmerman trial. For weeks his smug, fat face has popped up on every Internet site, like one of those inflatable clowns you can’t flatten. You can only wonder how that boy’s parents can forbear, sitting so close to him in the courtroom every day, when I, who didn’t even know him, would bury a knife in Zimmerman’s belly if I had the chance. Well, I know how they forbear. They have a God and I don’t.
I work in a small shop that refurbishes after-market car radiators, after-market meaning used—one of those no-name micro-factories tucked in a shed off the highway. Actually, it does have a name, United Radiators, although for some reason the name on my check is Human Industries. This used to be a UAW shop, like every small factory up and down this four-lane used to be; there’s even a union informational leaflet, oxidized and yellowed, tacked up in the break room. But in some negotiation or other the UAW gave up our bargaining unit in exchange for the pensions of the big boys up at the assembly plants. You can’t blame them.
I moved to this city from Brooklyn with a guy named Claude Banda. We had been together for three months, still skating around words like girlfriend or relationship; we ate a lot of Ethiopian takeout but never, that I recall, sat in a restaurant. Then he suggested we move in together. Not to his place or mine, but a new apartment, in the Midwest; rents were cheap and jobs plentiful, he said. Our kind of work history, so commonplace in New York, would radiate authority once it was transplanted, like the authentic Mexican death mask my brother picked up for pennies in Baja. Next thing I knew, I was wedging his wicker chair into the ass end of a Penske truck.
If this were a growing city, the after-market radiator shop would be staffed by immigrants, hard-working family men, the kind who provide the strong spines of low-paid labor in a place like New York. But this town hasn’t caught up with the rest of America, and the immigrants aren’t coming, or they came, took a look around at the sunless days and tarpaper houses, and split for the coast. So who works a job like this? Nine dollars an hour, unpredictable overtime, pigeons at roost in the rafters, and shit on the floor. Jailbirds, mostly, and drunks: you’ve never seen so many grown men without driver’s licenses. In the gray morning, when we emerge from a night of work, the parking lot is full of hard-jawed girlfriends idling in their Dodge Darts. Some of the men disappear into the fog on boys’ bicycles, banana seats and raised handlebars, cigarettes dangling from their mouths and streamers from the grips. There are a few youngsters right out of high school, who will quit soon, swearing that community college has to be better than this shithole. And one woman, me, still shaken by the awful revelation that, in fact, I have no skills.
And it happens I can’t palletize radiators very well, either. Two men feed the belt with radiators freshly soldered—whatever cracks in the fins or the flanged rims have been patched with silver flux—and they load the belt with radiators that move through an oven like an MRI and emerge, dry, to me; I stack them and shrink-wrap them and get the pallet jack and push them to the loading dock. So easy! And for nine dollars an hour! And what happens, well, you’ve seen “I Love Lucy.” The parts come faster and faster, they fly off the belt and crash on the floor. On my first night I approached the two oven-tenders—one short and red-haired with a sneer like Jimmy Cagney’s, the other tall and lumbering with a dark ponytail—and reasonably explained that every radiator that tumbles on the floor is a radiator that will have to go back to the repair department, so really, they’re just creating more work for themselves (and, incidentally, me) by loading them faster than I can retrieve them. After all, there are two of them, but it’s only me catching, so why not take it easy? The Cagney guy snarled and the ponytail nodded, open-mouthed, and after break the first radiator I caught had its fins scored to spell C-U-N-T.
I’ve been at the factory for three weeks and news of the death poll spreads through the plant like algae. I hear the mutter of names like Abe Vigoda and Jimmy Carter. I see the passing of money, the shaking of hands. There hasn’t been this much communal activity since word broke that Hostess was going belly up and a guy named Eddie the Crab backed a van to the loading dock packed with contraband Twinkies.
On my break I swallow a peanut-butter sandwich and seek the oven tenders. Jimmy Cagney is reading the paper with his boots on the lunch table.
“You want to cry some more about the oven speed?” he says from behind the front page.
“Who’s running the death poll?” I ask.
“Send your complaints to the Securities and Exchange Commission.”
“I want in.”
The newspaper sinks, revealing Cagney’s pugnacious mug.
“Who do I talk to?” I persist.
“It’s five bucks a name. Five for twenty.”
“I want in.”
“Man’s name is George LeFeu. Runs the punch press.”
George LeFeu is a round man with a small face, Chippewa features, a gimme cap with a Maple Leafs logo. He is sitting on a stool when I find him, eating an Oikos, with a gardening magazine spread on the oily surface of his machine. He eyes me, annoyed.
“I hear you’re running the death poll.” I talk out of the side of my mouth, like an old gangster.
“Who’s asking?” he snaps.
“I want in.”
“Five bucks a name, five for twenty. First one to kick gets the pot. Can you handle it?”
“I’m in for five.”
He takes off his cap and mops his brow, and he places his yogurt on the magazine. From a ledge above his press, he pulls a clipboard with a pencil tucked in the hinge. “What name?” He licks the pencil tip.
I’ve given this some thought. “George H. W. Bush.”
As if dealing with a particularly dull-witted child, George LeFeu flaps his clipboard and smirks. “There’s eighty guys polled before you. HW was one of the first called.”
“I see.” This is disappointing. I don’t even have a back-up. “Betty White?”
“Buzz Aldrin? Dick Van Dyke? Barbara Walters? Dear Abby?” I stutter the names of as many octogenarians as I can summon.
“Taken, taken, taken, and already dead.” LeFeu shoves the clipboard at me. “Here. Look it over. When you come up with someone original let me know.”
As I review the list in George LeFeu’s impeccable block handwriting, I am awash with new respect for my co-workers, for the breadth of their cultural imagination. Here are not only names of people who, frankly, I had forgotten were alive (Mickey Rooney? Sid Caesar?), but also the names of those I could not fathom dying (Nelson Mandela, Michael Caine). It’s not just old farts, either. The poll betrays a collective antenna finely tuned to the micropulse of current events, and those with serious illnesses, like Randy Travis and Robin Roberts, are in the top ten. Also listed are very young people whose public trouble signals a precocious demise: Lindsay Lohan, of course, and also Amanda Bynes and Justin Bieber. Some of the older guys, their heads still stuck in the Eighties, seem to hold on to the notion that the condition of being gay can shorten a life expectancy, so Elton John, Jason Collins, and Neil Patrick Harris are on there. Hugh Jackman, too: whatever. Someone nominated Diana Nyad and helpfully sketched a toothy shark next to her name. People with enemies, like Michael Vick, Paula Deen, and, yes, George Zimmerman, they are itemized too. Plus a few randoms, placed by high rollers who enjoy the rush of long odds. Erin Andrews, Angelina Jolie, and Mila Kunis—attractive women, all.
It is dizzying to register that the world is full of so many living people.
Before we unpacked the boxes of blankets and books, Claude Banda left me. I should have picked up on his indifference about the apartment’s shortcomings, the circuit blowing every time we operated the toaster and the coffee maker simultaneously, the mouse droppings in the cabinet. Our conversation, always terse at best, had been reduced to grunts, on his part, and hopeful declamations on mine.
I don’t even know if I ever loved Claude. It’s not a word we used. Neither is closure, a term Claude and I would mock, in the brief days we mocked things together. That’s how you sidle up to guys like him; dismiss shit, dismiss as much shit as you can—the more shocking the dismissal, the closer you sidle. And if you like something, it’s only for its meta quality. It’s much cooler to like “Real Housewives” than Sylvia Plath.
But I find myself compulsively texting him on break, my biceps sodden with lactic acid. I know I’ve lost him. Nothing will get you ignored like “Stop ignoring my texts.” But I keep checking my phone, as the oven-tenders switch from one lot to the next. I don’t even recognize myself, a woman in grease-stained jeans standing in a warehouse full of ash, thumbs working maniacally.
Finally I get Claude to agree to meet me. I shower the rust flakes from my hair and pick an outfit. I change my bra and slap my cheeks. The summer weather has been unpredictable: one day humid, as if we were trapped in an inverted drinking glass. The next stormy. Fires burn to the west, and in the east there are hurricanes. End times.
He chooses as our meeting place a neighborhood I have never visited. I was looking forward to doing the kind of thing I never do anymore, sipping good coffee in a bright cafe, maybe nibbling a scone studded with burnt currants, Neko Case on the sound system. Something to make me feel shiny and human. But places like that tended to be in the bottoms, and Claude was meeting me high up in the hills, where rowhouses rise one block above another, like the crenellated sprockets of a bicycle. It’s a sad place, no real commercial district: a bar with the front door slung open, a firehouse, a primary school with a broken playground. The air is gray, from smoke or smog, and when I park my car I look down the hill to the river, the same gunmetal as the sky, a couple of coal barges getting a tow toward the smelters.
We meet at a church. Claude said this is a place he had wanted to check out, a reliquary, one of the last of its kind. I am assuming Claude’s interest in church is, like mine, strictly anthropological, but who knows? We never talked about religion. It has been striking me with some force lately the range of things we never talked about.
I stand on the sidewalk a long time, pretending to be interested in the stillness of the place. My back and arms are kinked by the weight of radiators; even when I’m not lifting them my muscles clench. When a car passes by, I pretend to talk on my phone, just so I don’t look like a church loiterer. It’s Saint Ann’s Catholic Church and Reliquary, according to the ribbed felt sign. Observe With Us Sunday, 7 and 10. Of course it’s possible Claude has played a giant prank on me and never had any intention of coming. But that’s unlikely, since he doesn’t have much of a sense of humor.
He parks his Corolla down the block; even his car can’t bear to be next to mine. And as he walks toward me, pretending (as I am) to be engaged with our unprepossessing surroundings, he rears his head in surprise. “Whoa. Ida. What do you know?”
He wears a tweed newsboy cap, which makes his head look exceedingly narrow, and a brown and tan bowling shirt. I’m so used to the men at the factory, I’ve forgotten how skinny he is, or maybe he’s lost weight. I am embarrassed to be fatter—too many Little Debbie donuts from the vending machine.
I don’t know if we’re supposed to hug or shake hands so we just look at each other, two feet apart. “Nice hat,” I say.
“Have you gone in?”
“Into the church?”
“It’s one of the hidden gems of the Midwest.”
I wait for the punchline. “Are you working?” I ask.
“I’m freelancing. Writing and editing. Getting jobs from friends.”
What friends? I never once saw Claude pick up the phone and call anyone, or even text. I am in awe of these people who get work “from friends.” How does it happen? How do I enter this world?
“It’s supposed to be open.” He walks past me through the iron gate, up a couple of steps, and pushes the oak door. I catch it before it slams in my face, and once inside, I adjust to the dark. Claude stands a few feet away and reads the guest registry. We are in a little antechamber. A crucifix with a long, thin Jesus hangs over a door to the sanctum, and a woman comes to greet us. She is red-haired, not fiery red but faded like rust, and she has freckles. She is not fat, but her belly is large and gaseous, and when she speaks I see her teeth have wandered some in their sockets, migrating to the front of her mouth like people peering from a doorway. “I thought I heard someone come in. Are you here for the relics?”
“That’s right,” Claude says.
She pulls a couple of pamphlets from a wooden pocket on the wall. “Here’s some literature.”
Claude accepts one, and I say, “That’s okay, I’ll read his.” As a mark of good faith, I crane my neck to read over his shoulder, and Claude tilts the pamphlet away from me.
“Did you know this is one of the largest relic collections in the world?” She smiles at us so brightly and earnestly, those bad teeth denying her the glamor she deserves, that I am immediately on her side. I am convinced her name is Linda. “You’re not Catholic, are you?” The smile fades a little.
“No,” Claude says. “At least—I’m not.”
“That’s all right,” she says. “We get lots of non-Catholics here. Who wouldn’t want to see this?”
I look to Claude to see if he is smirking, but the cant of his head is respectful.
Another visitor comes in, a man with a crew cut and a Loyola sweatshirt. He is accompanied by a boy, eight.
“You’re just in time for the tour.” She opens the door to the sanctum and a corridor of light falls on us, rosy from the stained glass. We step in. It looks like any other church, the windows workmanlike and literal. Seven windows for the seven dolors. At first I don’t even notice the relics. But there they are, a row of glass cases along one side of the nave. Like children at the aquarium, we crowd around the first case and stare at a black velvet platform, the kind jewelers use to showcase their goods. On it is pinned a patch of burlap the size of a square of toilet paper. “This is from the robe Jesus wore on the cross.”
Claude pushes his glasses up his nose.
“How do you go about procuring something like this?” I ask.
“We have the papers to authenticate it,” she says. “The priest who started this parish, he decided this would be a good place for relics. These things are handed down through the generations, maybe from the disciples, maybe from people who were just around. Maybe from Mary. The things she held onto, just like you keep your kids’ stuff in the attic—”
“Mary had an attic?” I ask.
“Give it a rest,” Claude grumbles.
We look at the burlap for a suitable moment, while the man with the crew cut and his boy drift toward the candles at the back of the chapel. I try to pick up Claude’s vibration so I know how to react. Looking at Jesus’s robe, I feel nothing.
“This nail,” Linda says, leading us to the next case. “It’s not the actual nail from the crucifixion. But it’s an authentic replica.”
The nail is startling, crudely cut and much larger in diameter than your common household brad—it’s more like a stake. Blunter than I would have imagined.
“Unfortunately, after the priest died, his heirs came and stripped the church and sold most everything off,” Linda says.
This piques Claude’s interest. “You’re kidding me.”
“I wish I was. Tapestries, chandeliers, the whole nine yards. There was no will, so what can you do? You know, it was the Depression. And they weren’t a close family.” Claude and I shake our heads sympathetically, imagining the coven of distant relatives, women in corrective shoes and wilted bonnets, men in battered fedoras, descending on the church like crows, ripping the relics of Christ with their sharp beaks. “We got saints’ bones!” Linda says. She is treating us less like tourists now and more like friends. “Care to take a look?”
“Definitely,” Claude says.
We cut through the pews. Linda rests her hand on a crude trunk adorned with gold-leaf detail. On the front panel, two large bones are strapped with leather bands. One of them is enormous, definitely a femur, chewed at the top. Perhaps the saint had been mauled by a lion. The other is smaller, perhaps an ulna. “This is Saint Ursula,” our guide says. “She was going to be married, and before the wedding she decided to lead a crusade of eleven thousand virgins across Europe.”
“Like a bridal party?” I ask.
Linda continues. “It was a pilgrimage,” she says. “The pope himself joined them for a portion. And then they got attacked by Huns. All the virgins were beheaded.” She strokes the trunk. “Imagine—all those heads! And then they killed Ursula. So that’s how she got to be a saint.”
Claude separates himself from us and wanders over to a russet reliquary with ivory relief. On its lid is a skull small enough to cradle in my palm, delicate as a robin’s skull. “Who’s this?”
“You like it?” the woman asks. “That’s Saint Clelia. Only twenty-three years old.”
The skull is unbleached and darker than the skulls you see in Hamlet.
“They say you can still hear her voice. When nuns get together and sing. Nuns in Uganda, they sing in Swahili, and all of a sudden someone is singing in Latin. And they don’t know any Latin. That’s how you know! Clelia is with them.”
“Cool,” Claude says. He may regard this reliquary as an authentic rib of the Midwest, like the grain silos and factory frames and the weathered ads painted on the sides of barns—the remains of something elusive and real. The kind of thing he sold me on before we moved out here. With guys like Claude you never know. The truth is, I am moved by Saint Clelia. I imagine the Ugandan sisters singing in a whitewashed chapel, all in habits and some wearing glasses, a crucifix in brighter white against the plaster, and as they chant in their native tongue, the sweet Latinate voice of the martyr mixes with theirs.
The man and his son are across the way, by the nail, and the man calls, “You got any other Jesus artifacts?”
“Yes, we do!” Linda excuses herself, leaving Claude and me to watch over Saint Clelia’s lonely head.
“She looks happy,” he says.
“Skeletons look happy. Did you know they have to be chemically treated to get that bald look?” I ask him. “Leave a skull to nature and little bits of skin and hair will shrivel and stick to it.”
I happen to think this is interesting, but it doesn’t get a rise from Claude. He goes to the next relic, which appears to be a very large molar, and I follow him. Only now do I realize he chose this meeting place because he doesn’t want to be seen with me. Sometimes I’m not very bright. Claude has a new girlfriend. She is probably more his type, a girl who operates a latte machine, flipping the levers, etching tulips in the foam, or maybe the face of Mary. A girl in fuchsia tights and cranberry lipstick. He only needed me to help move his possessions.
“How’s the job?” Claude asks me, still staring at the tooth.
“It’s great. Terrific!” I say. “I’m getting to know my co-workers. You know: working guys. Salt of the earth and so forth. They invited me to join the death poll.”
“There’s a death poll?”
“Everyone takes bets on which celebrity will drop dead next. If someone famous dies and no one’s claimed his name we all re-up. The pot now stands at over a thousand dollars.”
“It is cool. All those names, so vibrant with life, and anyone can be snuffed at any time. We’re all trembling on the precipice.”
“I would choose Fidel Castro,” Claude says, after thinking it over.
“You and fifty others. I was like the hundredth person to ante up, so all the obvious names were taken.”
Claude points at me his smashable whippet face. I’d earned his interest, and some gears inside me clicked into operation.
“I wanted Bush. The father.”
“That must have been taken.”
I wander toward the front door, still harboring the hope for that cup of coffee. Maybe at the place where his new girlfriend works. “It was like sixth on the list.”
“Who was first?”
“Of course.” He smiles.
“And then Ariel Castro, the guy who locked up those women.”
“He’s got a target on his back,” Claude agrees. “Lance Armstrong? Lots of people want him dead.”
He revs up. “Keith Richards? Or is that too obvious?”
“A bit too obvious,” I say. “You want to win the pot, of course. But to win with panache.”
“So who’s your name?” he asks.
He stops smiling. As we stand by the votive candles, another visitor, a black woman, about sixty, in a UAW jacket, enters and lights candles with a trembling hand, one after the other.
“That’s sick,” Claude whispers. “You’re a sick girl.”
I look at him sideways. Have I cracked his ironic armor? “Oh, come on. He’s gotta die sometime.”
“That’s one thing. It’s another to put money on it.”
It gratifies me to send him wobbling back to his girlfriend, wounded and rattled. I walk out onto the street, where a thin drizzle has dampened the sidewalk, and I lift my face to feel it. Claude comes next.
“It’s not like I want him dead,” I explain. “I just stand to profit in case he does die.”
The crew-cut guy and his son stroll out of the church. The boy lifts his shirt and scratches his belly, white as a sliver of herring. Claude watches as they get into a Ford Explorer and drive away. “I mean it,” he says. “You’re depressed. You need some help.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing. I love how people say, ‘You’re depressed,’ as if you should be cured.” I wipe my hands, as if completing a task. “How can you look around and not be depressed?”
“Don’t look around. If that’s truly how you feel.”
The word “truly” sounds dirty in Claude’s voice.
“I’d like to round up eleven thousand virgins,” I say. “The Eleven Thousand Virgin March.”
“Saint Ursula had the right idea. Collect thousands of fierce virgins. Fanning across America, decapitating Huns.” I see us cutting a swathe through the flattened shells of industrial cities, corn-choked plains, warm and swollen streams, into the miasma of the Everglades, where the alligators snap at our ankles. “They wouldn’t have to be virgin virgins. Just the kind of girl no one listens to. And you know who I’d choose to lead the parade? That girl who testified against Zimmerman. Trayvon’s friend. She’s a girl I’d like to have on my side.” I see her face, tough and intractable. She heard her best friend’s death scream, and for that they assassinated her character. I want to swing a scythe and mow down every motherfucker. I just do.
“I didn’t hear her,” Claude says. “I don’t have a TV.”
A copper Delta 66 wobbles down the street on a flat tire, the tread flopping against the asphalt. I could remind Claude that news is available on the Internet, or he could even pick up a newspaper. But I get what he’s saying. He doesn’t want to be depressed.
“No TV. Whose idea is that? The person who picked your hat?”
We work a twelve-hour shift that night, shivering through the 4 a.m. hour into the vague daybreak. In this strange hour of wakefulness, the bad meeting with Claude replays in an endless loop of horror: the bones, the decapitations, the woman with bad teeth. Claude disappearing into the haze; the bile in my mouth.
Everyone has left his post. The machines are still going, but they are unmanned; belts creep, gears churn, a stamp press drops shut and opens like a persistent jaw. I am the only one here. I walk by the punch press, the soldering station, the grinders. Welding hoods are dropped on the floor, visors up like dead eyes. The stubs of welding rods crunch beneath my boots. I cross the floor to the break room and open the door to the yellow light. There is everybody, general noise, as if it were lunchtime. Money is exchanged, and LeFeu is moving from one man to the next, followed by a little, yellow-haired solderer. They come to me.
“That’s five bucks from you,” LeFeu says.
I pull some crunched-up dollar bills from my front pocket. “Who died?”
“Cory Montieth.” LeFeu elocutes the name with the precision of a Latin teacher; it’s a name he’s just learning.
“Who is that?” I ask.
“He’s on ‘Glee,’” the little solderer says. “Was on ‘Glee.’”
“How old?” I ask.
“Thirty-one,” LeFeu says.
“That’s too young,” I say.
The solderer shrugs. “Sometimes you get lucky.”
At the shift’s end we roll into the parking lot, and the men mount their toy bicycles or slide into the passenger seats of the little cars. LeFeu stands on the corner eating a banana.
“Are we re-upping?” I ask him.
The dampness has organized itself into a fine rain, falling like needles.
“We’ll see if there’s interest,” he says. “After a point you run out of names.”
“You never run out,” I say.
“Even so, there has to be interest.” He finishes the banana, rolls up the peel like a sleeping bag and stuffs it in the windbreaker.
“Yes, there does,” I say.
“Well,” he says. “There’s my ride. Good luck.”
I don’t know if he’s wishing me luck for the next death poll, the next shift at the oven, or life; whichever, it’s a sinister blessing. A Cutlass rolls up with tinted windows so I can’t see the driver. LeFeu boards and rides away. Our foreman, plagued with a bad case of adult acne, walks to his LeSabre swinging a large ring of factory keys, and then he, too, drives off. The day shift workers stagger in with their grim turkey-vulture faces, grimmer than us; clearly they have nothing as exciting as a death poll to enliven their hours. My Civic is parked in the far corner of the lot, next to a heap of broken pallets, their ribs split and splintered. Even the pallets here are secondhand. There’s a dumpster with a sliding side-door, which is open, and inside it are the radiators beyond redemption, radiators small as laptops or large as cellar doors, shit even this lousy company can’t sell: cracked frames, punctured baffles, skeletons reduced to rust. They get tossed here every night until they are hauled off for scrap or buried in a God-forsaken landfill.