Hot Tin Roof is a program to showcase current literary work produced in Iowa City. The series is organized and juried by representatives of three Iowa City-based cultural advocacy organizations: Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature and Little Village magazine, with financial support from M.C. Ginsberg Objects of Art.
By Todd Case
Weston lies in bed listening to the Illinois Central idle across East Third. Most people in town say it’s one of the bad things about living on the east side, but Weston likes the low rumble, the occasional sound of the coupling and uncoupling of boxcars while Lydia and the girls sleep.
In the near dawn shadows, he can just make out the hand-me-down dresser from when his uncle Jim passed; the crucifix on the wall; Lydia’s robe hanging on a hook. She stirs, and the bed squeaks. Weston turns to her and lays his hand on her warm hip.
He throws on a clean flannel shirt and a pair of Carharts with burn holes from the hot embers of a torch. Henry Ivers wants his gooseneck trailer repaired by 10 this morning. Ivers has tilled and tiled ground since ’62. Weston has seen him blast a feral cat off a fencepost with a .22, chainsaw a stand of timber for another acre of river bottom yield. Yesterday, the old farmer was in the shop, his head cocked, his bad eye milky as oyster stew, griping: “Goddamn it, Chief, if I had another day to give you I would.”
The beauty is in the work, Weston reminds himself—the burn of the flux, the heat that forges steel, the pop and hiss of the electrical arc across his welding goggles. He sits in the old cane-back chair he’d rocked the girls in when they were little and pulls his boots on, works the laces of the well-oiled, steel-toed Redwings.
“What time is it?” Lydia asks, sitting up on her elbows. “Wes?”
There’s a trace of peppermint in the room. They’d each been married once before; 15 years now to each other.
“I’m here,” he says.
He remembers a fragment from last night’s dream, something about Roberto, her father, deceased now. He wonders at its meaning.
“It’s five-fifteen,” he says.
“Do you want me to make coffee?” Lydia asks, running her fingers through her hair.
Lydia’s ex, Sam, lives south of the lake. He sells insurance, took over his dad’s book of business in the early 2000s and Weston sees him at the bank from time to time or drinking beers at the White Cap. The three of them graduated high school together.
“I’ll grab a cup at the Lakeshore,” Weston says.
She folds her pillow to the cool side. “You were sobbing in your sleep again,” she says.
He leans into the bedroom door jamb, closes his eyes and feels the vibration of trains rolling through Newell and Fonda, through Buena Vista, Webster and Boone counties, carrying corn and beans, hogs and cattle, North Dakota crude. One night at dusk he and the girls counted 54 boxcars at the Alta crossing.
“You ought to come back to bed,” she says, lying back down, happy for the extra hour of sleep. “See how your dream turns out.”
Sam had choked Lydia on her 22nd birthday, and she’d filed papers the next morning. After Weston married her, Sam had the stones to solicit him a few years later for the insurance on the shop, as if bygones would ever be bygones.
The last time Weston ran into his ex-wife, Kim, at the Aldi’s in Sioux City, he was with Carmen, his oldest. “Wait, what?” she said when she saw them in the cereal aisle. “Is that your kid?” Kim was living south of Salix at the time. She had a scar on her cheek from a third-degree burn. She told Weston she’d blacked out with her face pressed against a radiator, and giggled.
He looks in on Carmen and Jennifer. Ever since that boy was murdered a year ago and his body dumped at Stone Park an hour east, every parent in the county has been twitchy. They never caught the killer. Weston hasn’t gone a day since without his permit to carry. He watches his daughters sleep, sound and deep like their mother, though Carmen has Weston’s edge and ill-defined sense of uneasiness. Jennifer is more open, kinder in a way that Carmen will never be. He remembers when they visited Lydia’s brother in Oregon last year. Written in the sand on the beach at Newport in five-foot letters: Will You Marry Me? with 2 boxes, yes and no. The no box was checked, and Jennifer, eight then, cried, inconsolable.
Trains roll over the alluvial plains of the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, toward Jefferson City, Little Rock, Baton Rouge, the Gulf. The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.
Gritty, their Golden, rubs his nose across Weston’s knuckles to remind him it’s time to go. Weston kisses the girls goodbye, locks up the house and steps off the porch onto oak leaves fallen to the ground like a thousand dead stars. He swears he can hear the faint terror of hogs waiting for slaughter at Tyson Foods up the road. He’d worked the kill floor just out of high school and quit the day he paid off his first pickup.
The dog jumps into the cab of the 4×4 and they head to the cafe.
Roberto had been one of the first immigrants to work at Tyson 35 years ago. He had treated Weston like a son.
“You miss him, too, huh Gritty?” he says. He strokes the dog’s thick coat, but Gritty holds his gaze on the road ahead.
They pull up to the intersection on 7, a light October mist on the windshield, the lake thin and gray as a quarter. He reads the Broken Lake motto from the sign at the entrance to Chautauqua Park: The City Beautiful. Weston counts a murder of crows circling above the shore, seven in all, another sign of a hard winter. He hits the wipers and looks both ways. Even after a detour to Juanita’s, he’ll have that trailer done by 10.
Todd Case is a local real estate broker. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 245. The next Hot Tin Roof submission deadline is June 30, 2018.