THE SMELL OF RUST • by sn wright

I know the sound of boxcars clanging together in the middle of the night. Two giant containers being forced into a coupling — till next destination do they part. Years later, in a world a million miles from that space in time, I heard the sound again, and it brought with it the smell of rust that grew out of the discarded crossbeams too long in the Bridgeworks yard.  

And I remembered that night.   

Toad was the night watchman — and he drank. We all knew that he would raise his giant bald head as a mysterious silhouette in the dirty panes of glass late at night, trying to scare the kids, until he got drunk and fell asleep. We weren’t scared. We were waiting for him to fall asleep.  

There was eight of us. We’d been spawned and nurtured on Beecher Street — a row of shotgun doubles opposite the Bridgeworks. Three blocks of sparks flying from welders and hard metal lifted by giant cranes during the day — Toad and his drunken silhouette by night.   

And the smell of rust.  

And there was a tower from which the cranes centered themselves and swung their incredible loads from flat cars to metal stacks waiting to be welded into supports by the day crew. By night, after Toad had descended into his twilight stupor, we challenged the new kids — a rite of passage — our defintion of moxy for the Beecher Street Roughs. You had to climb the tower.  

And it was Bobby’s turn.  

Bobby was twelve years old. He was an introverted pensive kid not natural to the plains of Beecher where thoughts caused distress, and few words needed more than four letters. A land of early graves and pointless lives. And there was a moment, in their limited capacity, when his parents thought, he is not like us. Maybe he would be a ticket out of their mimimum-wage, cigarette-stained, beer-soaked world.     

Bobby did not want to climb the tower. Bobby was my friend so I convinced him that if he did not he would be a target for slaps and shoves and fearful days for years to come.

It got late; the gentlemen’s agreement among thieves, we let the climber set the pace. Some kids couldn’t wait and went up like monkeys with flaming tails. Others circled the tower waiting for fear to become manageable or boil to a fever pitch that launched them up one rust-colored hand and sneaker grip at a time. I knew Bobby was praying for his mother’s yell to call him home. Eventually the word was said that sent him up the black tower: chicken.   

“Don’t look down,” I told my little friend.

Into the shadows Bobby went, each movement deliberate and slow like watching a sloth peel a banana or snake shed its skin. Touch the crane, was the final instruction, along with comic encouragement from Butch and Ronnie who always yelled “jump!” as if they meant it.  

But Bobby froze.  

Panic gripped him in a vice of doubt. He was sure his next move would be his last. Falling was his only thought. And the thought grew. And grew. Until it was all he could do.  

The laughter stopped when we saw him coming down. Two seconds? Three? And the sound of him hitting the ground. I’ll never get that out of my head.  

Or the smell of rust. 

sn wright writes in Indiana.

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