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Return to Independence Basin

Matthew Ellison



  By Matt Ellison

  Copyright © by Matt Ellison

  All rights reserved.

  Send inquiries to Matt Ellison at [email protected]


  ISBN: 978-0-9981856-0-6

  Cover graphic by Betsy Ellison

  Also by the author









  EVAN GALLANTINE STOOD at the makeshift plank stairs of the construction trailer, staring up into the foreman’s flatiron face. What he answered, despite a voice well equipped to outshout the roar of heavy excavation machinery, was barely audible.

  “. . .makes you think. . .guy works for me?”

  “Visiting a lot of sites like this. Talking to a lot of bosses like you.”

  The foreman only nodded, volunteering nothing more.

  Evan looked up. Already the first of May, and high overhead, late afternoon sun creased the shaved edges of the twin towered World Trade Center, but down in the shadows, it was getting chilly, almost wintry. He buttoned up his sports jacket, then stepped up past the foreman into the trailer—despite being clearly not welcome. The staunch foreman stepped aside then back behind one of the many work tables stacked with sheaves of blueprints and engineering specifications.

  It was thankfully not as loud inside.

  “S’pose this so and so you’re lookin for does work here? What’s it got to do with you?”

  Unlike every other hard-ass hard-hat foreman Evan had tracked down the last month, this one was truculent in his reticence, in his feigning indifference, being asked about Joe Meeks. Too indifferent. Too reticent. Such that, despite his steel plate attitude, Evan had the distinct impression he’d be a soft touch.

  “It’s about a death in our family,” he said, “some related financial matters he needs to know, that kind of thing.”

  “You got the wrong Joe Meeks then. The one workin for me’s got no family.”

  Evan nodded. “I’ve been hearing that. Joe paints quite a picture: out on his own since he was a kid, ran off and never looked back, never had and never needed anyone. But, no, he’s not from Krypton; like it or not, he does have a family.”

  Out the window a huge dragline scoop hoisted a load of dynamited rock high above as the next in a long line of patient twenty ton dump trucks rumbled underneath. The load fell onto the truck, pounding its chassis so that it quaked like a bubble toy on the mammoth wheels; the concussive shock alone shook the trailer so much Evan put a hand to the wall to steady himself.

  He winced. Evan hated loud.

  After the truck thundered up the earth-packed ramp to street level and disappeared in the glass and steel of the city, he re-gathered his short ponytail of graying blond. Then pulled a folded manila envelope from his jacket pocket.

  “At a minimum, I need to get this to him. So if you think you can help. . .”

  “Yeah?” The foreman accepted the envelope, gauging its heft. “Any money in it for him, I hope?”

  Ah. Evan saw his opening.

  “Money? Well, that depends.”

  “On what?”

  “The final disposition of the ranch.”

  “Ranch? What, like he’s inherited it or something?”

  Evan shrugged, purposefully vague. “Something like that.”

  The foreman scrutinized the envelope again. “And so, who’d you say you are, again?”

  Gallantine offered his business card.

  “Los Angeles, huh? You’re in real estate development there?”

  “I’m just helping out, handling the sale.”

  “Sale? Of the ranch?”

  “It’s complicated. And a lot depends on Joe, so, if you know, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to know where to find him.”

  “Yeah. And you’re not the only one, either. How about let’s take a walk?”

  He flipped Evan a yellow hard-hat and led him outside. They crossed the landfill site, the grounds rumbling with construction, its buildings in various stages of completion, one already a skeleton of girders rising more than forty stories, another foundation not even fully excavated. Across the Hudson, reflected sun seared off the office building windows lining the river with such glare Evan, even with his sunglasses, had to shield his eyes to it. He hated bright, too; as much as loud.

  They stopped at the largest excavation, a cavernous pit of concrete pilings and exhaust-spewing cranes, each in various cycles of hoisting a concrete block, the size of a small house, up its full height, more than a 100 meters, then releasing it, to freefall plummet down its tether of twenty to thirty stories of heavy steel cable, and hammer the steel-tubed pilings deeper into the as yet still unthawed, recently dynamited earth. Far worse than at the trailer, the ground shook incessantly, as the many cranes repeated the same process without stop. A workman here would have to grow hardy sea legs in no time. Or quit.

  The foreman barked at a nearby group of workers. From among them, a jowly, enormously fat heavy whiskered man stepped out and waddled toward them. Proportionally he was as fat as the machines around him were big. Most of him was a dome of swelled out stomach that took the lead while the remainder, a hard hat and some arms and legs, tailed behind. His belt-line fell low and still only barely stretched around the enormous girth, his T-shirt rode up well shy of it, leaving a wide medicine ball of hairy flesh in between.

  He gave Evan’s ponytail a long once-over.

  “Who’s your new sweetheart, boss?” he shouted.

  “Where’s Joe Meeks at,” the foreman shouted back.

  “The fuck do I know? I’m his mother-fuckin keeper?” He squared to Evan. “Who wants to know?”

  “No one, but if you know where a person might go to look for him. . .”

  Evan raising his voice, shouting, yelling to be heard, he hated it; not his style, none of this to his liking.

  The fat man pointed to one of the giant cranes. The only one idle.

  “There’s where he’s s’posed to fuckin’ be; what more can I tell ya?”

  Evan toed his oxblood loafer against his pants leg, a scuff on the tip.

  “I was more wanting to know where he actually is, not where he’s supposed to be.”

  “Yeah?” the fat man said, reddening. “So who’re you, jack, his sister?”

  “Not that close. Actually, we’ve never met.”

  “Yeah? And knowin Joe, he’ll want’a keep it that way.”

  “Maybe not,” the foreman put in, “there’s money in it for him.”

  “Yeah? For his fuckin sake, better be a shitload.”

  “So Joe’s not working today, then?”

  “Working? Oh no, hell no. Chicken Little’s got better things to do than work. Na, he’s too busy with how all these buildings are built poor and are about to come crashin’ down any goddamn day now! How all these pilings, all of ‘em, ain’t set deep enough, shy by fifty feet, all accordin to him.”

  “Are they?”

  “No and whether they are or ain’t, what he’s paid to do is operate equipment, not second guess the engineering.” The man’s meaty finger stabbed the dusty air. “I’m bettin’ you got what little sense they got in that fucked up family, jack, ‘cause Joe sure didn’t get none. If he really does go to mid-town, like he keeps sayin, that fuck’ll be lucky not to end up fifty feet under himself.”

  The fat man hitched his pants, raising his eyes up the open tiered adjacent tower, forty stories of open girders and concrete, each floor cordoned with bright orange sa
fety netting.

  “You afraid of heights? ‘Cause odds is Joe’s probly now up one of those top floors there, keepin himself company, fingerin’ his navel, figurin’ out how why it is he knows more’n every CE on the goddamn project an’ nobody’ll listen. So maybe you can catch him there. . .if a good stiff breeze don’t come up and blow up and do us all a favor.”

  He lumbered off back behind a stack of steel casings. Evan turned his eyes to the building’s, his eyes following the construction elevators as they lifted cement buckets from the shadowy recesses of ground level up into the bright, late day sunlight blasting the upper levels. Flashes of blue arc-welders burst here and there against the orange netting.

  “What did he mean, if Joe goes to mid-town?” Evan yelled to the foreman.

  “The managing agent. Idiot’ll do it, too; you’d know if you heard half the stories I heard, like this bridge job down in Missouri, he somehow got wind of a big earthquake they’d had couple hundred years ago, and he got the highway department so riled they. . .guess you heard that one too?”

  “It’s possible I’ve heard about all of it by now. Pissed off contractors? Joe cuts a swath like Patton.”

  He offered a cigarette to the foreman and took one himself. He inhaled, studying his yellowed fingers.

  “You haven’t you fired him, though. Like all the others.”

  The foreman spit. “Oh I would have, all right. If it weren’t for his boy.”

  “His boy?”

  “That’s why I didn’t want to say nothin at first, in case you were going to make trouble for the kid.”

  “What kid?”

  “Joe’s kid. Nice boy, too. Real nice.”

  “What do you mean, Joe’s kid? You don’t mean his son?”

  “If you don’t know, I sure the fuck don’t. A few weeks ago Joe left town and when he came back he had the boy with him. All I know is the poor kid’s mother just died all of a sudden. Joe claims it’s just temporary, but I got a feeling it isn’t. And Joe as broke as he is, about yay-close to getting himself fired, and probably not another site left in the country would give him work anymore. . .I don’t know.”

  A siren blew, quitting time; almost immediately, the machinery began to stop. The shaking earth quieted, and in the immediate lull that ensued, Evan’s legs felt light and rubbery.

  “One thing about this ranch money,” the foreman went on, “it’ll do the kid good, even if it don’t Joe.”

  He pointed out a dilapidated trailer by itself just outside the perimeter fence in the undeveloped section of the landfill.

  “That there’s what Joe calls home. No place for a kid, as you can see. He’s there now. I’d say go pay him a visit. He’d be glad to help. Hell, he’d be glad just to see you, whoever you are. Joe sure don’t got a clue. Hasn’t even got him in school.”

  Evan looked up. The sun had dropped into evening, and cool dank air was now lifting out of the pit. He breathed a breath of relief. What little he’d learned about Joe Meeks made him doubt he could ever get his ear, let alone his cooperation. But with a boy to support, no money and possibly no job, well, that could very well change everything.

  He crushed out his cigarette.

  “Thanks for your help, chief,” he said, tossing back his hard hat to the foreman. He smoothed his jacket and walked away, more of a bounce in his step than when he arrived.

  IT WAS LATE afternoon, almost quitting time. Wade sat on the timber steps leading into Joe Meeks’ trailer, the padlocked door gleaming down at him. He twisted his fingers in his old t-shirt. It wasn’t the first time he’d locked himself out.

  Brian, the foreman’s boy, yawned.

  “God, Wade, I thought your dad would be here by now.”

  “His name is Joe, Brian, I told you before.”

  “Yeah, and I wish he’d get here already.”

  “He will,” Wade said, wishing the same thing.

  “He’s kind of dickless; that’s what my dad says. He said. . .”

  Brian’s voice was drowned out by another warning siren from the construction site. Wade stood to watch. A muffled dynamite blast rippled through the sections of twilled steel protective mesh blanketing the earth. The dozers followed hard upon, like metal tigers tearing into the loosened debris.

  “What’d he get you? Anything good?”

  “Brian, it’s not like that.”

  “What do you mean? He’s not getting you a birthday present?”

  “Just never mind,” Wade snapped, wondering why the foreman had made his boy come by. He shouldn’t have bothered. They weren’t friends. He was older, and homely as the Incredible Hulk.

  The quitting time whistle blew. The machinery fell silent, the voices of the shouting workers died down; soon the only movement was little waves on seepage water in the sump pit, which when Wade arrived a few weeks ago had still been iced over.

  “Did your dad say to wait for him or no?”

  “His name’s Joe, Brian.”

  “Alright already. Did JOE say to wait?”

  “He didn’t say anything.”

  “Then here; open up before I have to go.” He gave Wade a wrapped present and a tied box.

  “What’s in this?”

  Wade opened the tied box first.

  “Dad told me to get you a cake too, so I got ice cream cake.”

  “Ice cream cake? There’s no such thing.”

  “Where you been, Timbuktu?”

  Wade opened the box, and sure enough, cake made out of ice cream.

  “Here’s candles. Twelve, right?”

  Brian stuck them into the cake and lit a match.

  “Won’t they melt it?”

  “Duh.” Shaking his head, Brian set the cake ablaze, flames flickering in his eyes. “Now open up; I gotta go.”

  The gift was a Knicks basketball jersey, identical to the one Brian wore. Wade quietly refolded it.

  “Well Jeez, Wade. You can’t put it on at least?”

  “We’d look funny. You want to be wearing the same shirt?”

  “Don’t be a dickweed. You don’t like it?”

  “No, I just. . .it’s all right for now.”

  “Better than the one you got on. It looks like crap. Where’d you get it, a bum or something?”

  “If you have to know, my mom gave it to me.”


  That shut Brian up. Nothing more smartass to say. For a while they both just watched the candles burn out. Wade searched the men leaving the site, though Joe rarely came home until late anyway.

  He unfolded his present again.

  “It’s kinda chilly. Maybe I’ll just put this on over mine.”

  “Yeah, okay,” Brian said, and stepped back as Wade pulled it on. “Looks almost as great on you as it does on me.” He swatted Wade’s arm. “Let’s eat that cake before I go, okay? Your dad can wait; you snooze you lose.”

  Brian scooped his bare hands into the ice cream cake and loaded his mouth with it.

  “Jesus, Brian.”

  Brian gave him a messy grin. “Just say thanks, Wade; my Dad’s waiting.” His cake-smeared hand waved good-bye.

  “Thanks,” Wade said, waiting until Brain was gone, then plunging into the cake with his own hands. It really was ice cream cake, still frozen, pleasantly tingling his fingers, his teeth, his tongue. He stuffed some more into his mouth, smiling.

  A good birthday after all.

  THE SUN ALREADY setting across the river, and still no Joe, Wade set his cake under the steps, where it would stay cool for him. By now it was quiet but for the line of cement trucks on the street, mixers revolving, drivers hosing loose gravel. Spray spouted off the chutes making rainbows. The men, in huddles of burly t-shirts and hairy necks, were joking and telling stories, men Wade knew by sight now, always milling around before leaving for their real homes and real houses, Joe never among them, always too busy with work.

  Catcalling and whistling broke out as two women in high heels walked by. Wade looked at the two women, wo
ndering what men always got so excited about. He then began wondering if Joe ever got excited about women and was thinking long and hard about it when he heard footsteps approaching the trailer. He looked up excited, but it wasn’t Joe. It was some man he didn’t know. Well-dressed, not a worker, you could tell. The last rays of sun turned his jacket a fiery gold as he came up, stopped, and studied Wade carefully before extending his hand.

  “How you doing, chief?” he said, as his yellowed fingers closed around Wade’s so firmly they drew him to his feet. He asked Wade his name, then jiggled the padlock. “Your dad isn’t back yet, Wade?”

  “He’s not my dad.”


  “No, he’s not. I’m just staying with him. My mom just died.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “That’s okay.”

  “Where is your dad, then?”

  “I don’t have one.”


  “No. Never did.”

  The man seemed doubtful. And also, familiar.

  “Your mother never told you about him, I guess.”

  “She never told me about him ‘cause I never had one,” Wade snapped. “I think my own mom would know, you know.”


  The man stepped back. Turned around as if looking for someone. A clip holding his hair in back flashed in the setting sunlight.

  “Joe’s taking care of you, though?”

  “We’ll see. That’s what he says.”

  “Ah. And then what, you’ll go stay with relatives?”

  “No. We don’t have any. It was just me and mom.”

  “What about your dad’s family?”

  “I told you, I don’t have a dad.”

  The man set his foot on the plank.

  “That’s right; you did tell me that, didn’t you?”

  “Only girls can have babies, I hope you know,” Wade said.

  “True enough.”

  “So there doesn’t have to be a dad. Okay?”

  The man thought a minute, then nodded. He took out a cigarette.

  “You expect Joe will be back soon?”

  “Maybe,” Wade said. “What do you want him for?”

  “Well, for one thing, to let him know his own dad died.”

  “Joe’s dad?” Wade thought a minute. “He had a dad?”

  “Between you and me?” The man leaned forward and Wade instinctively did the same. “Joe not only has. . .had. . .a father, he has a whole family. He doesn’t tell people that though. He ran off from them when he was not much older than you.”