Flood Control

This week, as an end-of-summer treat, we present you three stories by The Common contributors originally published in our special Summer Fiction Issue.  Enjoy!

bench

Flood Control 

By OLIVIA WOLFGANG-SMITH 

My sister finally gets me on the phone in mid-November. By then I’m in Fort Peck, working on the dam. I’m one man, in one of the many shantytowns that have become a regular fixture outside the work site, our shacks pitched in odd-angled clusters. Canvas stretches taut between fresh-cut lodgepole pine beams that flake splinters when we touch them. Great sheets of railcar scrap metal lean heavily against each other and ping dangerously as the nights get cold. I hold my breath crossing thresholds.

I’m leaning a tired elbow on the warped bar at Charlie’s, not quite drunk, when Charlie sticks out a fist wrapped in telephone cord and waves the receiver. “For you,” he says. “Sarah somebody.”

My breath hitches. I hop the bar and untangle the phone from his hand, just barely not leaning in as he brushes me, careless, on his way back to three half-poured whiskeys.

I’m sweet on Charlie. That’s how my mother would say it, if she knew. As if I’d ever tell her. And that’s how it feels, too—stuck like molasses, mouth gummed closed when he makes conversation tending bar or across the dirt track between our shanty houses. It’s something that I worry the other guys can hear in my voice, can see in the carriage of my shoulders. I tamp myself down like loose fill, afraid of what’s in me. A wink, a lilt, that could bubble to the surface any moment. Because Fort Peck doesn’t hold for this sweetness. The men who can’t hide it end up empty bunks—jumped, punched out, gone. This is how quickly we turn on ourselves, our hackles rising at the scent of sugar. I have nightmares of discovery, dreams caramelized, sticky. I wake with my heart boiled down hard and thumping in the pit of my stomach.

“Fort Peck!” Sarah screeches, and I mash the receiver harder against my ear, hoping to ride the wires clear to Missoula. “I rang Havre, and they said you’d gone on to Fort Peck! What are you there for?”

We are here for the dam, and we’re digging. It’s years from being finished and already huge, ready to choke off the Missouri River as it rushes up from Wyoming. It will make a lake to spread out many-fingered and deep, big enough to blacken the map like spilled ink. Recreation and flood control. The thing grows every day, the huge spillway casings rearing up like a fortification against the south. It’s a hydraulic job, pipelines pumping in river-bottom slurry to fill the dam itself. But for me it’s always digging. Carting away what the bulldozers can’t after dynamite blasts. Heaving shovelfuls of mud-slushed fill from one pile to another. Adding sand to strengthen the gray paste of new-poured concrete. I’ve already bounced through WPA projects all along the Canadian border. Before this, I was mostly hacking out trenches for pipes to someday shunt water out to the forgotten corners. This is my third year of digging.

I hear the click of another phone picking up the line—Doc Flaherty’s office, maybe—and get stage fright. “The dam,” I say, hearing my voice rasp as if caught on my teeth. Maybe someone’s sick. Maybe someone’s dying, and here I am. “Better money than Havre was. Longer work. I sent a letter.” I hear Sarah sigh, a little throat-clearing sigh she does when she’s thinking, and I miss her so much that I’m sure it shows on my face. I want to duck under the bar to keep the guys from seeing.

“Did—did something happen?” I stammer, faltering at the sound of another click on the line. I imagine operators listening in with their hands poised over plugs and circuits, ready to spread bad news. “Where are you?”

Almost laughing, because she knows how I am with phones, Sarah says, “The studio.”

My sister is the best ballroom dancer in West Montana. Our mother says so, and Sarah believes it. I guess I do too, since the foreign folks at the studio in Missoula said they’d teach her for free. Before we knew how good she was, I danced with her a little bit, years ago, when she was learning by mail with the Murray System and needed someone to hold onto to make the steps work. At first everyone was excited, because we’re twins. People thought we’d dance beautifully together, fit each other’s frames, know what the other was thinking. And she was so good. But I didn’t get any of that talent. My elbows drop, my knees scissor, my eyes stick to my clopping feet. Sarah was built to dance, and I was built to dig. So when the new decade made money matters worse instead of better, Sarah stayed home to dance, and I hitched onto relief work. Our mother’s hope is that Sarah will make our fortunes.

Somebody puts on a record, and a chorus of cheers goes up from one of the back tables. I press my fingertips to my ear and bend low behind the bar, a pull in the muscles of my legs like I’m stretching too thin. My eyes settle on Charlie’s shoes—laces flopping, leather scuffed raw across their rounded toes. “Did something happen?” I say again.

This time she does laugh. “Kind of,” she says. “Maybe. Might happen. Mary went hiking in the Sapphires and broke her ankle. And, well, they’re letting me dance in Helena next Friday.”

My heart stagger-steps like a champion Foxtrotter and I forget the operators, Doc Flaherty, even Charlie’s shoes. Helena. The Treasure State Games. “There still a cash prize?” I ask, trying to keep my voice normal.

“Yeah,” she says, and I can hear the nerves in it.

Seven hundred dollars.

“Can… Do you want me to come home?” I ask. I don’t know why. I’d lose my job. Not like Sarah would have use for my dead hoofing, my hours off the clock.

“I just found out,” Sarah says. “I’m not prepared at all, and they do International there, not American Smooth. I don’t even—”

Charlie reaches past me for a bottle; there’s the clink of glass on glass. “You’ll do great,” I say, and swallow. “You’ll win. You’re going to win.”

“Okay,” she says, her voice small.

“Call Friday night. As soon as it’s over.”

“I’ll try. You know I’ll try, but there might not be a chance, a phone, right then. Not if I—”

She cuts herself off, biting down on the forbidden words. If she’s carried off on the crowd’s shoulders and keeps dancing all night. “Next Saturday night, then,” I say. “If not Friday.”

She sighs again; I can hear her nodding.

 

That night, I drink too much and dance, after a fashion, to “Cheek to Cheek” with a girl named Louise. She drives in every Saturday in her own car, and the seams on her stockings are always straight. She’s cute as a bug’s ear, and she likes me—I can tell.

The dancing is no more natural with Louise than it was with my sister, than it has ever been with any girl. “What’s with you?” she asks when I misstep and knock her knees for the third time. I’m going home, Louise. I’m going home, and we’ll all be rich. But it feels too magical to say, like if I announce it, even to Louise, I’ll hex it.

“Nothing,” I say. “Drunk. Tired. M’sorry.”

Louise smiles. “Why don’t you go on home? I’ll see you next week.”

She squeezes my arm and disappears through the crowd, which is especially nice since my pockets are still heavy with unpromised payday money and I haven’t even bought her a beer. Tugging at my shirttails, I look around for Charlie, but he’s dealing with a knot of guys clustered at the bar. It’s a busy night, and he’s harried—one sleeve rolled tight past his elbow, the other flopping wet at the cuff with splashed whiskey. I bite down to pin my smile against the inside of my cheek.

I find my coat crumpled at the bottom of someone’s stool and walk back to the tarpaper house I’ll share with however many of the guys come home tonight. I hunch my shoulders against the cold air. My sister is better than Ginger Rogers.

In the morning, the sun shines weakly through a sky streaked gray like a greasy drop cloth, unrolled to bump the horizon. The wind gusts in and whistles in the hollows in the new-poured concrete; the air smells like snow. The dam casings cast a thin shadow by afternoon, swallowing my team and our shovels one by one.

All that week, I think of dancing. Of Sarah in that blue silk performance gown she borrows from the studio, rhinestone-studded bands at her wrists and elbows. She’s twirling across the top of the concrete spillway in the arms of some stuffed tux with a number pinned to his back, feather-stepping and kicking her skirt out. She’s waltzing in perfect closed position with her hands on a faceless stranger, and in the framed space between them, my mind conjures the shrill ring of the phone at Charlie’s. Seven hundred dollars of rent and food and ballroom gowns and the stairs to our Missoula walk-up made straight and safe. A trip, even. A move. Beaches with cornmeal sand and water that settles clear blue; air still and mild enough to bake itself warm in a sun that shines yellow instead of harsh white. A different sun, a sun I’ve never seen. A sun that can be bought for good.

I look at the men around me and thrill with luck and guilt. Any one of these guys could use a piece of news this good, and just the possibility of fortune feels like a betrayal. It’s been a long time since we were heroes. We used to get whoops from the flatbeds of sputtering trucks. Sweating paper cupfuls of lemonade from ladies in flowered dresses. We smiled and waved and doffed ball caps greasy with Vitalis. But before long, the work got dusty and hard, and we clung to the edge of each town for our sake rather than theirs. People outside of Fort Peck look at us sideways now, us boys who burn our throats raw with cheap whiskey and blow bullets through our own scrap-heap houses. Who scrub ourselves raw pink on Saturdays and hitch into their towns to find girls to lay our hands on. Who came to Havre and brought not pipes but trenches, not water but an empty channel, and said, Look how smoothly it will run.

Fort Peck, our Fort Peck, is different. These boomtown neighborhoods are ours, dug up from the prairie and sprawled out in a stupor. We stumble around, setting fire to our paper buildings filled with booze and whores and tired men. It’s a folding city of cut-rate saloons. And on the Tuesday after Sarah calls, I realize that there are things about it that I will miss.

 

Charlie Owens is lifting crates of whiskey off the pallet in the back of his truck, a strip torn from an old shirt holding back hair gone floppy with sweat even in this thin sunlight.

“A month before Christmas, and I feel like the middle of July,” he says by way of a greeting. “These damn boots are baking my feet.”

I don’t say anything. I’ve dug through three summers to the tune of cicadas buzzing in the trees along the roadside. I’ve tanned darker than leather and shaken dirt crumbles to dust in the cuffs of my dungarees. I know hot work, and this isn’t it. But the way Charlie says things, always with a gruffness that’s near laughter, makes me want to agree. And he is working hard, scrabbling at the crates with his wiry ropes of arms almost without muscle. He’s older than most of us, which is probably a good thing for a bartender. People don’t pick on Charlie. He used to run a place in Helena but blew into Fort Peck long before the crop of guys here now, knowing an opportunity when he saw one. Charlie makes a living spotting empty places and filling them.

“Need some help?” I ask, and he gives a strained nod, jerking his neck against the weight of a crate. We empty the pallet together, and he moves easily alongside me. We understand each other. Every time he passes the shoulder nearest him rises in a shrug, my body battling for proximity and screening the flush I imagine creeping from under my collar. I struggle around the sudden thickness that sticks sideways in my throat, trying to soak up my last week of this feeling. This sweet discomfort, this awkward pleasure of pulling in two directions. Steadying myself against a makeshift city of ten thousand souls like mine.

Perhaps like mine. As Charlie drives off to park behind the bar, I wonder how alike any two men can be.

 

By Wednesday my nerves are winding me tighter and tighter, and the guys can tell I’m not myself. Frank eyes me curiously as he stalks stiff-legged to the dam site, sucking coffee from a dented thermos. Frank drinks everything like it’s rotgut whiskey, takes long pulls without stopping to taste. He started his life in Montana as a Missoulan boxer with a glass jaw and came here by way of a four-year stint in the hoosegow. His face sets kind of crooked now. He wears a ragged beard to halfway cover it. At Fort Peck, he makes his living mostly by trucking materials into the site and loose fill back out. He’s got a driver’s arm you can recognize across a room: left forearm dark from watchstrap to elbow. He and I are something close to friends.

“Why so quiet, kid?” he says, prodding.

“No reason.”

“Yeah?”

I knit my fingers and shrug around the twitch of a tired smile. In the face of a challenge, tank sputtering near empty on sleep, I can’t hold it in.

“Been talking to my folks,” I say. “They might be about to, you know, come into some dough.” I drop my voice to grab interest. “I might be heading out of here next week.”

Frank’s laugh turns heads—and earns a few eyerolls from men not yet awake enough for his bluster. “Kid, you make your people sound like grifters. I guess, even if they are, good luck to them. And lucky for you that they’ll pay your way.”

He claps me between the shoulders hard enough to rattle my molars.

 

Bleary-eyed, angry, I arrange my calluses against the handle of my shovel. After all the tons of this state that I’ve moved for Sarah and my mother over the years, all the shovelfuls of Montana that I’ve picked up and put down for the sake of a few dollars a week postmarked to Missoula. Lucky for me they’ll pay my way. These last days the same as the first, the same as any of the others. Three years of moving dirt around. After all this time, all this work, it’ll be one night of Sarah doing what comes natural that’ll set us right.

My shovel glances off a stone with a clang that shakes my hands numb. I pause, panting, and flex my fingers. Well, I can still take these last days and say goodbye. I can still go into Charlie’s and make the rounds. Not nothing to show, then. Maybe not nothing.

 

After my shift, I spend the evening watching the phone and drifting off. My head dips low until my hair brushes the wood of the bar and Charlie slams his hands down, laughing, to wake me.

“Go home, bud,” he says again and again, waving at the crooked door as if giving a benediction. “Go home and rest.”

I swallow hard and go, stumbling sleepy through the quiet dirt tracks.

Someone barks my name, and I jump a little—it’s Frank, looming beside me, pickled in liquor and laughing. “Headed back?” he asks, the words happy and blurred, and when I nod, he falls into step beside me. Gradually, the light and noise of the bar fade into darkness. Dark buildings loom, lopsided and familiar, on either side. The ghostly motors and metallic bangs of the night shift float up behind us.

I see them before Frank does: a shadow within a shadow forming a single dark shape clinging to a wall. My eyes adjust and see two of them there, patches highlighted in the moonlight—alternating light and dark denim; hips pressed close; one man’s spidery fingers ghosting the other’s cheek.

I have seen first, and I could do anything. I could keep walking through the hitch in my gut, the pleasure and shock of recognition. I could lead the chuckling, beer-blind Frank right by. But I let it stop me, my stomach’s fizz and stumble, and after a few paces without me, Frank stops and follows my eyes.

“Hey!” The noise of it is like a water main bursting. I jump as much as the men, who are stricken in the half-light. The clouds of their breath dissipate, frozen like foxes, their eyes raw. And then Frank is yelling and lunging forward with hard words; he is drunk and slow but still a hulk. The men stumble and sprint, crunching gravel.

Frank is just barely swift enough. He snatches at one man’s collar and half-spins him, enough that a trembling scream escapes the man before there’s the rrrip of a tearing seam and Frank loses his hold. Their running footsteps fade into the darkness. My heartbeat echoes them.

Blowing hard, Frank bends and rests his hands on his knees. Spits. “You know those guys?” he asks.

I know the right answer. I shake my head, and the rest of me is shaking too.

“Yuh,” Frank says, catching his breath and standing. “Jesus.” He squints once more into the dark, then shrugs and walks on. “Come on,” he says. “I’m bushed, and I can’t leave a skinny thing like you when there’s perverts out.”

 

My dreams rough me up, the way they’re not supposed to once you’re grown. I wake myself just before sunup with a clammy shout, blankets twisted.

It’s Thursday. I want to call Sarah, but I know she must already be in Helena. All day I raise my shoulders against the cold, curdle in my own sweat and think of her getting ready: warming up, eating roast beef sliced thin as playing cards, and drinking glass after glass of water. Over and over, my thoughts blur back to the men from the night before—their hands and bodies; their stricken eyes; their clumsy sprint into the darkness. Frank’s rage. My shrug. Fuckin’ fairies.

Sarah’s preparing, gulping sobs against her nerves while our mother rubs circles across her back. For the first time I wonder if she might not win. My shovel stabs into the fill.

I don’t sleep till dawn.

 

The dam is starting to take shape. From a distance, you can look at the ribs of the spillway gates and trace the contour of the shell to come. The concrete yet to be poured, fill yet to be dredged and pumped. This is the work I have ahead of me. This is the work I’ll leave behind.

By the end of Friday’s shift, what’s done is done, or must nearly be. Sarah has danced all day, and either we’re seven hundred dollars richer or we aren’t. I race to Charlie’s on stiff legs and lock my ankles around the barstool nearest the phone. There’s a pretty big crowd here already, though nothing compared to what’ll be tomorrow, when the boys will have pockets full of spending money and nothing to do but drink and dance.

Charlie notices me. “Hey,” he says, “you been watching the phone?”

“My sister might call. That Sarah from last Saturday.”

Charlie’s smile is toothy; it gets him tips. “Then, jeez, but you’re a man who loves his sister.”

I don’t know what my face does, but Charlie laughs at it. He reaches out to ruffle my hair. I duck, knowing it’ll be greased with the day, but he gets it anyway. Something inside me feels like it’s being mixed.

“Alright, kid,” Charlie says, and moves down the bar with a damp dishtowel.

And suddenly I don’t care about what almost happened to the men in the alley. I don’t want to leave. I cling to the edge of the bar and pray desperately for the phone to ring, for the dancing to be over, and for Sarah to have plenty of lonely time in the echoing empty hotel ballroom to hunt down a telephone and give me the sad news. I’m sorry I got your hopes up, she’ll say. Never mind, I’ll say. You’re better than the others anyway. Don’t cry. You can try again next year. Our mother will lead Sarah home through her own quiet tears, and I’ll stay here at Charlie’s and maybe stand up with Louise on Saturdays and understand the people I live with.

I stay like that past midnight, forced rigid against my stool.

 

On Saturday afternoon, the snow that’s been threatening for weeks finally falls in a sudden flurry. Just a crisp inch crunching underfoot, flakes dimpling still-wet concrete at the dam site. This will make work harder next week, I think, and wonder again if I need to care. I stand bone-tired in line for my week’s pay, nervous enough to fidget but too spent to waste the energy. As soon as I can get off-site, I burst into Charlie’s, and he looks up from a catalog he’s reading behind the bar. “Well, hey,” he says, smiling. “You know I’m not open yet.”

“There been any phone calls?” I ask, breathing hard.

Charlie shakes his head and looks at me carefully. “Take a seat, though,” he says. “I’m sure it’s coming. You wanna eat something?”

He gives me two pickled eggs and a glass of water. I bite into one of the eggs, and the sour brine of vinegar blooms in my mouth. The egg has gone rubbery from too long in the pickling jar, and I love Charlie for the mistake. I finish the eggs and gulp the water in silence, staring somewhere into the middle distance.

All through the afternoon and evening, I trade in bits of my week’s pay for pickled eggs and beer and the blue plate special that Charlie serves because the line between bar and diner is blurred in Fort Peck, where everything comes salted and preserved. We sit there together in the easy silence of tired men, my heart thudding against the rhythm of his sighs as he reads his catalog. By the time the place starts to fill up, I’m pretty sure he’s started undercharging me for the beers.

The bar gets warm and loud with the early nightfall, and I wrap the noise around me like a blanket. Somewhere in the crowd, Frank is roaring out a story about a championship fight that he’ll probably turn out to have lost. I hear Louise’s voice and know she’ll come find me when she needs a partner. For now, it’s just me and Charlie in our corner. I can feel him just outside the curve of my vision, moving up and down the bar, checking up on me every few minutes. I’m still sober enough to tense each time he approaches. I’m exhausted from imagining my sister’s disappointed voice—because by now I’ve convinced myself that she’s lost. Or maybe that she broke her ankle like Mary and she’s been in the hospital since yesterday. I hear a ghostly ring in every high-pitched sound, in the whistling echo of my own thoughts.

Ten o’clock. They have to be back in Missoula by now, no matter what. I rub my neck and stew over the fact that I can’t tell which way it’s gone, that I don’t know what’s happening through our supposed twin connection. My jaw tightens; when I swallow, it sets me trembling. I hate that I don’t know if I’ll be here tomorrow. That I don’t know if I want to be.

“How we doing over here?” Charlie says.

I swallow thickly, my mouth malted, coated in my own residue. “Still waiting,” I say, and my voice scrapes. Drunk.

Charlie sighs and lays his forearms flat on the bar, leans in. My lungs catch and idle half-full like broken bellows. “Something going on with your folks?”

Maybe, I try to say, but it doesn’t come. I look at Charlie and my eyes heat, but it passes. I reach out and clasp a mostly steady hand on his arm, and he lets me.

I’ve picked up a shovel and stopped rivers, moved mountains, summoned clean water into thistle deserts. I feel like Pecos Bill, like a tall tale come true, and I look Charlie in the face and know that he’s one too. Right there in front of me, too much to be believed. I take my hand from his arm and brush his stubbled cheek. He jerks away from the touch, smiling crookedly, “Hey, now. Think you’ve had—”

“No,” I say, knowing what I know, knowing I just need to make Charlie understand. My head’s buzzing, and my fingers are heavy with certainty. Fort Peck doesn’t have to be just the dam. We can stay here forever and pickle ourselves to rubber, stay young and strong and dance on Saturdays with whoever we want. “No,” I say again, and I reach out to Charlie as he backs away. I stand up and brace a hand on the bar, lean unsteadily across it as my heels leave the ground.

His punch comes quick and mercifully clean, a crack that sounds external, and I’m flung back onto my feet, staggering over my own weight and falling to the floorboards. Dust sticks to sweat along my cheek. The wet heat of blood dribbles from my nose. A few men move away and yell drunken approval, but most of the crowd takes no notice.

Charlie stares at me from behind the bar, his fist just starting to loosen.

When it rings, he looks at the phone, then back to me. Neither of us moves. He crosses his arms and works his jaw, jutting his chin to the side. Finally one of the boys moves to lean over the bar and grab the receiver.

“Don’t,” Charlie says, nodding at me on the ground. “It’s for him.”

I pick myself up and stumble out the door.

I only just make it outside before I fall again in the dusty carpet of new snow. I gulp and swallow at the frigid air, expelling it in hoarse jets that make a pool of blood-tinged meltwater against my cheek. Sweat beads slick on my face.

I squint my one open eye at the broken town before me, painted white. Somewhere in the darkness is the hulking shadow of the dam casings. They will go up no matter who builds them. I claw at my shirt to release the heat trapped underneath. A button pops off in my clumsy fingers, and I fling it away. Strong and slow thumps come from my wrists, my neck, my hips.

A hand on my arm. Louise. She turns me over, and her breath hisses at the sight of my face. Her mouth sets.

“Alright,” she says with a nod, scooping snow into her bare white hand and holding it against my temple. “Alright.”

 

Olivia Wolfgang-Smith holds a BA in Creative Writing from Hamilton College and is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Florida State University. 

Flood Control

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