Scrapper

Scrapper

by Matt Bell

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616955212
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/15/2015
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.78(w) x 8.54(h) x 1.04(d)

About the Author

Matt Bell is the author of the novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award, a Michigan Notable Book, and an Indies Choice Adult Debut Book of the Year Honor Recipient, as well as the winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award. His stories have appeared in Best American Mystery Stories, Conjunctions, Gulf Coast, The American Reader, and many other publications. Born in Michigan, he now teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.

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CHAPTER 1

When Kelly saved the boy he was not yet again living any real life, just wallowing in the aftermath of terrible error. Later he would say he'd lived that year by his hands and by his back and by his shoulders and his wrists and his legs and his knees. The year of the body, he'd say, showing his opened fists, the thick white blistering of his calluses — and forget the head, never mind the heart. After the collapse began he'd barely thought, barely spoken, tried for a time to slow his thoughts to silence, or else to bury them with effort, exhaustion. He'd worked past the pains he'd known, found deeper places to lodge a throbbing, but then in the zone the incompleteness of every building became an inkblot for the subconscious. Whatever was missing would be supplied.

The farther he moved toward the center of the zone the more the neighborhoods sagged, all the wood falling off of brick, most every house uninhabited, the stores a couple thousand square feet of blank shelves, windows barred against the stealing of the nothing there. Paint scraped off concrete, concrete crumbled, turned to dust beneath the weather. Wind damage, water damage. Fire and flood. Before the zone Kelly had never known rain alone could turn a building to dust. But rain had flooded the Great Lakes, ice had sheered the cliffs of the state from off the land, shaped the dunes he'd dreamed of often after he'd left the state. The streets here were empty of traffic and in some neighborhoods the grass overran the sidewalks. He parked his truck, got out, walked the paved lanes instead. On trash days he could tell whether a house was occupied by whether or not a container appeared at the curb. There were other methods of determining inhabitation: the sound of televisions or radios, the presence of cut grass. But some men cut the grass for their neighbors to hide how they were the last ones living on their block. A way of pretending normality, despite the boarded windows, the graffiti, the other front doors never opened. Despite the absolute absence of other cars, other human voices.

Mostly it was easier. Mostly there was no question where there were people left behind. The only questions he had to ask were about opportunity, risk, metal.

Whenever Kelly entered an uninhabited house he understood he entered some life he might have lived, how the emptiness of every room pulled him inside out. A furnishing of the self. He opened the front door and the house ceased its stillness. If it had ever been inert it wasn't now. No structure was once it held a human consciousness. In the South Kelly had worked construction, had seen firsthand how a house unlived in wasn't a house. It was so easy to awaken a place. The way a doorknob awoke a memory. The way the angles of a room recalled other rooms. There were blueprints etched across his memories, and in some houses those memories activated: the bedrooms of his parents, the bedrooms of his parents' friends. An angle of light like one he'd lain in as a child, reading a book on birds. The deep dark of a basement, the other dark of an attic. How the fear of the dark hung at the lip of a basement stairs, how it hesitated at the foot of any stairs leading up, toward whatever was below or above the house, outside its public space.

With his smartphone he could check the prices of what he salvaged: the amounts offered changed day to day but he couldn't wait days to sell what he'd dug. At the salvage yards the workers weighed the truck loaded and then they weighed the truck empty, paid him a price multiplied against the difference. The salvage men photocopied his ID, took an inky thumbprint. This was a legitimate business, they said. They asked where he'd gotten the scrap and he lied. They asked again and he took a lower price per pound.

Whatever the salvage yards wouldn't take he took to other men, brokers running scrap out of a backyard or an idle warehouse. There was no trouble with space. There was space everywhere. The unofficial yards kept unofficial hours. You could show up in the middle of the day and find the place deserted, show up at midnight and find three guys playing cards, getting high, cutting scrap. They paid a fraction of the price, the price of no questions asked. Whatever was suspect they'd break until it was sellable. There were scrapyards where no one asked these brokers questions, contractors who would mix the questionable stuff with more honest trade.

Once he'd arrived to find a man cutting a copper statue with a power saw. The man shirtless, skin gleaming, working without eye protection, a stub of a cigarette clamped in his mouth. The statue's arms sawed at the elbows. The head on the ground. The saw working its way through the torso at a steep diagonal. The kerf of the cut wide like a wound from a sword. Then the smashing the hands with a sledge. Then the mutilating the head into unrecognizable shards.

Broker: a ridiculous word for such a man but everyone self-justified. Everyone wanted to be more than what they were.

The salvage men reminded him: it wasn't the function they sold but the form. It didn't matter if he broke a broken refrigerator. What mattered was getting it to the truck without straining his back. There was more steel and iron than anything else but they paid the least of anything. A hundred pounds of copper pipe paid more than double a truckload of steel. Same for copper wire, copper cable. You could ransack the rooms of a house but the best stuff was hidden behind the walls. It wasn't the metal that held the house up but you wouldn't want to live there with it gone.

Kelly could picture the city's glory days but it took a certain imagination. On the television in his barely furnished apartment he watched a blonde reporter say the collapse was still in progress but now it was down to the aftershocks. Sometimes the news interviewed one of the left behind. Once this man or woman had been an autoworker or a grocery clerk like anyone else. What mysteries they were now, the blonde reporter said, these unemployed men and women with their forlorn streets, their locked doors nested behind locked doors.

Why didn't they leave, if things were so bad.

Why didn't we understand why, if we had homes of our own.

Inside a rotting duplex, he opened a refrigerator long unplugged and pulled its bulk away from the wall, found a carton of milk dated more recently than he'd expected. A house stayed intact as long as it had inhabitants but after they left the decay began. Wires lost their hum, pipes went dry. Doors and windows could be covered or replaced with plywood but their protection would not last and then the inquiries of thieves exposed the inside of the house, then the upper floors filled with wind and rain, the changeable weather of the Midwest. Soon every carpeted room turned to molder and rot, roofs fell through, the rats and cockroaches had their way.

A howl of wind came banging through a front door, the repeated slamming of a thrown bolt against a doorframe shivered his skin. He knew it wasn't human voices that held back the fall of cities. It wasn't any number of people sharing a room, wasn't the presence of family meals. Everywhere he went he saw the quiet creep of falling down, falling in. A contest of wills, the agonies of architects against the patience of nature.

Opened to the elements the inside of a house smelled mostly like the outside. There was everywhere more emptiness than he'd imagined. The surface was void of anything valuable and so he had to go deeper. There were inferences to be drawn from the locations of outlets, junction boxes. A house changed after he saw its walls as containers. He began to understand the arcane layouts of the worlds behind walls, learned to find the bathroom before he went looking for the pipes. He opened the walls with a sledge and the older the house the more copper he found. He wrapped his gloves around the jacketing of wires and leaned back, leveraging his weight toward the snap. Or else he took a hacksaw to a piece of pipe, catching it before it fell into the wall.

He kicked through a plaster wall and after he withdrew his foot he found the remains of a squirrel nestled against the studs. Tiny skull, tiny feet, all the clamber long ago gone out of it. He cradled the bones, walked slowly toward the back of the house, the bouncing screen door he'd left open. Halfway there he caught himself in the last arc of a busted mirror. What was he doing here. What jumble of bones and the past was in his hands. What was he doing and why.

Outside another house, he found a broken window, cleared the glass to grant access to the interior. The house's first floor skewed back a couple of decades, gave off a story of wood paneling and thick carpet, avocado appliances. The furniture was mostly gone except for a sagged couch propped against the front wall of the living room, its seats facing in, and in another room he found a busted dresser, missing its drawers. He thought it was possible to underestimate how many people had lived in each room, the distance between the ideal and the necessary. Kelly had grown up in his own bedroom but his father had shared his with two brothers. His grandfather had been born in a one-room house, home to nine brothers and two parents, the ghosts of three miscarriages and a stillborn daughter. Theirs was a family of men, no women except the ones they were born to or married. And of all the men in this family it was only Kelly who had never married, never bred.

He worked within the zone during the day where he could and at night where he couldn't. In the deep dark of unlit streets there was less chance of being disturbed but the need for light gave away his position. He wore a headlamp strapped around his forehead but the light meant others could see him moving. Sometimes he thought he saw shapes swarming outside the windows. If he heard a voice call out in the darkness, then he paused where he was. If he heard two voices he shut off his headlamp and let the darkness reshape his pupils. He didn't have much imagination left but what imagination he had he thought he could do without.

After the fire, the ringing he heard in his ears never went fully away, but it got worse when he did too much, worked too hard, pushed himself inhuman. Sometimes in the dark he stood still and listened to it sing.

He didn't carry a weapon, didn't keep one in his truck. If he bought a gun he would always know where it was and one day he would use it. But often there was a tool in his hands, a hammer perhaps, and even if his hands were all he had it didn't mean they couldn't be used to defend himself, to fight back, to hurt in turn.

At the hospice shop the newest clothes went the fastest. He pledged anew his old loyalties to the state's teams, showed his allegiance with t-shirts in team colors. He thought he'd kept up while he was away but if he recognized a name on the back of a shirt maybe the player had been retired for years. The oldest shirts were three for a dollar fifty and if one fit he bought all three.

If he had to buy his soap at the hospice shop he worried it was the soap of the dead. Some weeks he could afford better but he'd traveled to the city with a new frugalness and he was determined not to chase it away. He walked the shop, wondered whose life the photo frames had contained. He wasn't ever in a hurry. He had to hustle to do enough work but it hardly took his whole week. He thought he would like reading a book inscribed with someone else's marginalia but when he got the book home he found he didn't need the voices of more ghosts. That was already what reading was.

This was his year of diminishment. Less was all there was. Even where there were people left there wasn't any of the commerce people needed to make good. He bought his cereal in the same place he bought his beer and the two choices were flakes with sugar, flakes without. There was hardly anything fresh on the shelves anywhere. At best a bowl of apples next to the cash register, a couple bananas under the cigarettes, beside the lotto tickets.

He didn't believe in luck but he believed in bananas.

A new twelve-pound sledgehammer was forty dollars, replacement handles fourteen. A pipe cutter cost twenty dollars, tinner snips thirteen. A heavy cable cutter might run one hundred ninety. He could make any purchase worth it but he had to be sure. He was never sure. The locking toolbox for the truck had cost three hundred dollars but his tools were safer there than in his apartment. His truck became his most necessary possession: an all-new chassis the better year he'd made the purchase, a multidisplacement V-8 under the hood. Live axles for maximum longevity and durability. Inboard dash navigation, maps swinging with the sweep of overhead satellites. An anxiety of attractive credit terms, secured with a down payment of wages earned and a loan guaranteed by the promise of more paychecks which had not come.

He bought a lamp, a folding table, a pair of unmatched chairs. His bedroom was small, his bathroom smaller. There were just the two rooms. There was more room than he needed. He bought dishes and utensils and a glass and a mug, took them home to the kitchenette barely hidden behind a thin wall. He had to listen to the refrigerator cycle while he tried to sleep. The apartment sat on the first floor of a converted motel, with other apartments on both sides, behind and above. During the day he had to listen to two children crisscross the floor above him for hours. As if running were so novel an activity they might never quit. At night he heard the laughter of loud men, the anger of shrill women, the frustrations of both sexes. A cheap apartment meant living in a cloud of your neighbors, their sounds and smells, the obscene evidence of their activities. He had to turn the television up at least as loud as his neighbors or he couldn't understand the shows. Often the nightly news became a lesson in lip-reading but he watched until he'd seen both the weather and the blonde reporter, smart in her pantsuits.

The floor was the only quiet surface and so sometimes he lay down upon the scratchy wear of the carpet to put one ear and then the other to the ground. Trying to hear how hearing nothing sounded.

The city was bisected by a freeway reaching from north to south, eighteen hundred miles running head to heel across the country. There weren't any mountains in this part of the state but there were mountains on this road, farther off in either direction. The road knew the ocean. It knew the greatness of the lakes. The road could take Kelly to Canada or the Deep South or the Atlantic coast. The road could take him home, to a small town two hours north, named for a tree sharing its name with a poison.

Last he'd heard everyone he knew there was still around, except his parents and the other assorted dead. The last time he visited was for his mother's funeral. All the faces in the church were so old but they were mostly the same faces he'd grown up among. The swishing movements of suit and skirt, of standing and kneeling and standing and sitting in a half-empty church. He'd seen his mother lowered into the ground but hadn't watched the ground close. The woman he'd been with had wanted to see where he grew up but he'd asked her not to come. They weren't married but they lived together, owned a house down south. There wasn't anything to be ashamed of but he didn't want to answer any questions. He didn't plan on ever going back again so better to tell his aunts and uncles he was alone.

He had some cousins there, a few lost friends. There wasn't any juice left. If he went to them it wouldn't be as their relation but as the stranger he'd become. If there was one thing he needed the zone to teach him it was how to be alone again. Unquestioned and uncharged.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Scrapper"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Matt Bell.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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