Read an Excerpt
A shrill whistle signaling the start of the night shift at the paper mill caused the walls of my office trailer to rattle. Standing at the window, I watched as smoke poured from the tall pipes that lined the top of the plant and twirled up into the dark Georgia sky. The smell of the mill overpowered that of the lukewarm coffee I was drinking, an odor that had almost made me sick the first time I experienced it. "The smell of money," my old college buddy, Jay Beckett, said of the stench that could cause even the hardest of men to curl his nose. When I dropped out of college to work for his start-up company, Beckett Construction, my wife's father had told me that I'd never make more than a laborer's wages. In just twenty years, I was making twice what my father-in-law did and now carried the title of project engineer on a business card. Sweat and long hours had paved the way for success, but the toll I'd paid could not be measured in dollars and cents.
The smell of money turned out to be an axis between my soul and my family. A dividing line that separated me into two halves until I stumbled through life feeling like the magician's assistant in a show I'd once seen.
At a resort theater in the Bahamas, I occasionally glanced at the engineers I was asked to entertain for the sake of renewing a company contract. While the magician with the red cape and black spandex pants guided a chain saw down the center of a white box, the assistant who lay inside never flinched. She just smiled and looked up at the ceiling that glowed with colored lights, withdrawn from the massacre that was taking place below.
While the tips of the assistant's sequined shoes sparkled, the engineers who sat next to me grimaced and sucked in their breath at the idea of the beautiful woman being ripped in two. But I just kept staring at her blue eyes and thinking that I knew how she felt, being torn away bit by bit from a part of your being. That night marked the first time that I'd missed an event in my daughter's life. The night she had walked across the stage at the local community center, looked at her teacher, and reached up her tiny hand for her kindergarten diploma.
Regret was a heavy opponent back then. I flew back to Atlanta crumpled against the plane window, feeling the weight that comes with bad decisions. But over time the trappings of more contracts and larger bonus payouts had tipped the scales of balance. Soon regret was nothing more than a feeling, a slight irritation that could be swatted away with the justification that I was missing family events in order to make those I loved happy with gifts that time could not buy. The rationale never had made any sense to my wife, Heather, no matter how many different ways I tried to explain it or how many times I called to say that I was sorry.
Seven years later I found myself answering my office phone and still offering the same explanations. This one was for my daughter's gymnastic event that I'd missed because of an employee who hadn't bothered to show up for work, but Heather was no longer listening. She was only talking, louder and louder, till I had to pull the phone away from my ear. Even from a distance her question cut through the cloud of excuses and left me remembering exactly how cold the airplane window felt against my face the night I leaned against it and tried to convince myself that work was more important than a kindergarten graduation.
Through the phone line my wife's question sounded like a riddle, but there wasn't any sign of playfulness in the tone. "Tell me something . . . are you just living to work, or working to live?"
A loud noise from the paper mill's compressor broke the silence, and my metal desk vibrated. At first I thought of acting like I hadn't heard her question. But Heather knew all of my tricks. Ignoring a question might work with my employees, but it never worked with Heather.
"What?" I finally asked.
"You heard me . . . Look, there's no use going over this for the hundredth time. What's done is done. Just promise me that you'll take a nap or something. There's got to be a place you can hole up in for at least thirty minutes. Working a straight double shift, three times in one week . . . missing Malley's gym meet. Come on, Nathan. It's insane."
"Yeah, tell that to the millwright who didn't show up for work tonight. 'A death in the family,' he said. Funny, they always manage to pull off a death when they need to."
"If you don't get some rest, you're going to end up dead from a heart attack or something. Look, we both know that you really don't have to work these hours anymore."
When I exhaled, I tried to cover the phone receiver. "It's shutdown. You know what it's like when it's shutdown. Repairs to the plant have to get done in a short amount of time. Time's money around here. When the plant's not running, nobody's making money, and when nobody's making money, nobody's happy."
When Heather sighed, she didn't bother to try to hide it. Her breath came through the phone line heavy and aggravated. I pictured her running her hands through the brunette corkscrew curls that bounced around her face and twirling the phone cord tighter around her wrist. "Whatever . . . just promise me that you'll get some rest. A little rest . . . a catnap . . . okay? I worry about you."
Shuffling through the soiled and wrinkled blueprints that draped over the metal desk, I accepted her plea without any resistance. We'd known each other for half of our forty-one years, but there was also so much she couldn't understand.
Before I hung up the phone, the trailer door swung open. A short young man with deep-set eyes, whose name was long lost among the sea of W-2 forms stacked on a card table next to my desk, motioned with his chin toward the plant yard outside. "We got a break to the rupture disk up on tower fourteen."
"You think you can handle changing it?" I asked and reached for the hard hat that hung on a rack behind the file cabinet. If only Heather was still on the phone, she could hear for herself why I had to stay at the job site.
The young man nodded. "Oh, yeah. I just need some backup. The thing is, Kyle didn't show up tonight . . . something about a funeral . . ."
"Yeah, I know all about Kyle," I said, never looking to gauge the young man's reaction.
Outside in the plant yard, rusted pipes and sparks from welding machines littered the concrete floor as men carrying buckets of tools made their way past us. Beyond the plant gates, the interstate hummed with traffic. Bright light from the plant spotlights rained down on us as though we were celebrities at a fancy black-tie event. But the only black ties were those made of grease and dirt, woven permanently into the shirts of the men and women who kept a steady stream of money flowing for the mill owners.
Climbing the ladder to the sixty-foot tower, I watched as the boy who was trying to be a man paused halfway up. "You okay up there?" I yelled.
He never looked back before climbing another few feet. It would be a cat-and-mouse game that continued for the length of our journey. If the millwright had shown up for work, I wouldn't be out here. The thought kept playing in my mind, stirring up the anger that caused me to climb faster until I was inches from the young man and the hardened clay that lined the soles of his work boots. "Am I fixing to have to light a match under you? I don't want to be up here till sunrise."
At the top of the tower, the crisp, early-March wind clipped against my face, and off in the distance, the high-rise buildings of downtown Atlanta sparkled. Hissing steam rose from the dome-shaped tower that held the disk. I motioned for the young assistant to put the tools on the floor of the catwalk.
If it hadn't been for the risk of releasing chlorine dioxide into the plant, I most likely would have told him to save the job for the morning crew. Turning to ask for the wrench, I found the young assistant holding on to the rail of the catwalk that circled the tower. Sweat trickled down the side of his stubbled face, which was growing paler by the second. "You gonna make it?" I called out.
He never looked away from the top of the tower that loomed ten more feet above us. At first he nodded and then shook his head. "The stairs got to me. I'm feeling . . . something's not right with my stomach."
Fishing through the box of tools he managed to place on the catwalk floor, I looked down at workers the size of ants. They scurried about the plant just like it was their own personal anthill. "You're not scared of heights, now, are you?" I yelled to the young man.
"No . . . but Kyle usually takes care of this."
"Yeah," I said. "Well, Kyle ain't here tonight." Part of me wanted to chew him out for not telling me in the first place that he was too yellow-bellied to do the job, but the other part of me wanted to laugh. "I tell you what," I said, strapping the gas mask around my neck. "You stand over there, glued to that rail, and when I lean down and hand you the old disk, you just lean out and hand me the new one. Sound like a plan?" The entire moment summed up my basic philosophy on life: if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.
As I climbed up the ten-foot ladder, the tower hissed like it was ready for a fight. I paused long enough to look out across the rows of pipes that created the plant's skyline. The bright spotlights overpowered the darkness, and even from a respectable distance, the heat from the lights singed my neck as good as any tanning bed that my twelve-year-old daughter argues that she is old enough to visit.
With the mask now in place and the rust-stained wrench in hand, I went to work. Three bolts came off of the old, cracked disk with ease. Then something scratched against my leg, throwing me off balance. My breath was heavy and echoed against the vinyl mask that fogged with each word I yelled. "Wait a minute. I'm still trying to get the bolt off of this one. Give me the new one when I motion for you." The assistant was reaching upward, holding the disk as if it was a gift for his daddy. His face contorted in either strain or confusion, he stared up at me and lifted the replacement disk even higher.
When I turned back to the stubborn bolt, the white beam shining from the spotlight across the way blinded my vision. For a second I only saw black and then hazy shapes of gray. Out of instinct or fear, I reached out, trying to find the bolt with the wrench. Heat from the disk scalded the tips of my gloved fingers as I struggled to make out the shape of the bolt. "Got it!" I yelled, but the sound never left the inside of the mask.
The thrill of the catch would be the last thing I remembered that night. When I yanked the bolt free with the wrench, my foot slipped from the ladder and the wrench fell faster than I did. No childhood scenes flashed before my eyes. There were only sounds. Yells from the young assistant, clanging from the scattered tools on the catwalk, and the hissing of the tower above me-sounds that rang in my ears until the pain made me scream out.
When I hit the safety rail on the catwalk chest-first, I flipped before landing on the platform floor. My body twisted with pain until breathing became the hardest job I'd ever faced. Even the ammonia scent of the paper mill, that smell of money, couldn't wake me from the darkness that settled over me.