Four Last Things: A Disruption of Boschtown
The Tree Man
The sign over the old shoe factory falls with a boom. The kids playing stick ball out in the field behind Old Man Johnson's take the caps off their heads and hold them to their hearts for a moment of silence. Their parents' sobs rise up above the neighborhood, the groans growing a bit more hysterical when the factory roof thuds against the earth. Dust storms float up from the hill.
"Tree Man musta died," says Greg Tate. But the other kids don't pay too much attention to Greg Tate. Only thing he's good for is shortstop.
"We're gonna starve." Quinn Smith pulls his cap bill over his eyes. All the kids know how bad Quinn wants out of town. He's scared he'll turn into his parents, who'll sit around the house all day drinking beer now that their jobs came tumbling to the ground. All the adults are gonna have to find new jobs. Only reason the town exists is for the shoes.
Greg Tate sneezes under the dust drifting from the hills. "Will we all sink?"
"There ain't a Tree Man. There ain't a dead Tree Man," Roger Black yells.
"We live inside him. He created this town just for us."
"That's stupid," Quinn Smith says. "Junior Boschley owns the factory. Wouldn't the factory break down if he died?"
"Tree Man was his daddy."
The kids turn their back on Greg. Stupid to even start listening to him.
A tall, skinny man stands in front of the Boschley Shoes sign. Where the sign hit, there's a big crack in the earth at least ten feet long. The ground's been parched for at least six years, back when the drought came through and burnt all the grass away. It rips under the sign like tissue paper, brittle, thirsty, and dry.
Junior Boschley hears clopping feet charging up behind him and stamping on the bare earth. The tall, skinny man turns to face a whole stick-ball team of boys. They tip their caps in reverence. But Junior Boschley doesn't feel much like a reverentee right about now. "At ease, boys."
"We're so sorry about your father, sir," says Greg Tate. Quinn Smith pokes him in the side.
The boys fidget, and Junior Boschley fidgets too. Now that his daddy's business fell down, these boys' parents can't even think about sending them to college. Or get them cars when they turn sixteen. Or get them that new gaming console when it comes out next month. Junior Boschley wonders what these boys will call him when they're reduced to eating bologna sandwiches every night, and their bodies cramp from the diarrhea.
"Since that . . . if . . . we were wondering," Roger Black says.
Junior Boschley's eyes widen, and he leans forward. The boys take a few tippy-toe steps back.
"What is it, son?"
Roger Black clears his throat. "We were wondering if we could have the leftover shoes . . . to sell? You know, since our folks might not have cash for a while."
He can't tell them the shoes in production were never finished. It was just a matter of time before their parents lost their jobs anyway. Bits of leather and rubber lie in their graves on the factory floor. After twenty years, Wall-2-Wall Mall™ decided to get their designer knock-offs from another company. With Wall-2-Wall Malls, Super Wall-2-Wall Malls, and Wall-2-Wall Mall Extr3m3!s spreading to every Burg, Metropolis, and Town Podunk, USA, they informed Junior that Boschley Shoes could no longer meet Wall-2-Wall Mall's high-quality demands. Junior Boschley knew what that meant, and how could he blame them? Wider profit margins to be had letting Manchurian children construct Spikee's for .00001¢ an hour.
Nobody remembers the last time it rained. The drought was six years ago, but once the temperature got normal again, no one minded the lack of water. The creeks never completely dried up, and anyone could take a dip in the pond beyond the middle school when they wanted. But now that the factory's broke down, everybody notices how grey the sky's grown. Ash grey—almost white like the edge of a cinder. How quickly the blue left, and the grey just sits there promising to get darker and bring a storm.
The factory workers—that's everybody but the old folks and the kids—demand an explanation for their lack of severance pay. The business line is disconnected. Junior Boschley doesn't pick up his phone, nor does he bother to answer the e-mails they have their children send. Nothing better to do than sit out on their porches and drink beer. It surprises them how much of their days were spent sewing uppers and stringing laces. The meat's running out, and mac & cheese for dinner every night is getting old. With no extra cash for candy or gum or milkshakes, the kids are coming off their sugar highs. They whine and moan and can't bother with stick ball or hoops. So they pester their parents on the porches all day, and the grown-ups are shocked to discover that they are pissy, mean drunks.
It had gotten so bad when the factory workers passed each other on the sidewalk, they whispered plans to sell their children for any kind of income—half jokingly, of course. These discussions had become a little more serious by the time the fliers appeared in everybody's mailbox:
SAVE BOSCHTOWN'S CHILDREN!
Come tonight to the Elementary School
Auditorium to find out how!
Some think Junior Boschley's back. He hasn't abandoned them after all. He didn't file bankruptcy and split with the dough—that's the biggest rumor, anyway. Others figure some zealous Boschtonian, most likely Mabel Carter or Daniel Bixby, will declare the town's fate as The Wrath of God, and all must repent or be damned. They head down to the school anyway. There's nothing else to do, and the nutters are entertaining. So they all crowd together in the auditorium, the adults buzzing from their afternoon drunk, the children sulking over watery dinner noodles.
A sharp man in a navy business suit steps behind the podium. He's in his late forties, but in good shape. He's obviously a jogger or lifts weights. His salt-n-pepper hair doesn't age him at all. The thin wrinkles under his eyes give him a dignified face. His smile is bright and hopeful. Clearly, he hasn't been walking under a grey sky. He stands straight without hunching his shoulders. When he pans the room, he looks everyone in the eyes.
"I, Colton McConroy, a son of Boschtown, return to you with a heavy heart."
Murmuring like a disturbed beehive. The crowd whispers at each other, the main question traveling down rows and across aisles. Eventually, it reaches Mrs. Heil, the oldest citizen in Boschtown, head drooping over by the auditorium entrance. "Colton McConroy? We don't remember him. Is he really one of our own?" Old Mrs. Heil manages to raise her head above buzzard-slumped shoulders. Everyone waits for some kind of affirmation in the gummy residue over her once-blue eyes. Even McConroy doesn't seem to mind that his audience's attention has been averted for just a half second.
Old Mrs. Heil lifts her index finger, the bones knobbed over, bent, and rubs her nose. Then, she shrugs.
Not surprised, the audience returns to the spectacle on the stage. Old Mrs. Heil doesn't remember much of anything.
"My heart sank at the sight of the old shoe factory," says McConroy, "but I know I have not nearly been affected as all of you. You've lost your jobs, your stability. How do you feed your children? What will they do when they get older with the factory gone?"
Now they're all a bit restless. They tap their feet and pull at their shirt tails and collars. Most have never seen McConroy before today, at least they don't think they have, but obviously, he's been spying on them. How else could he understand? Those uncomfortable dinners where beef stock and vegetable broth stretch thin, and there's no chance to bite into plump meat anytime soon. The stressed looks from their children fearing that even these sloppy meals will soon end.
"When I saw how my dear Boschtown had fallen, I became desperate to find a solution . . . for all of us. We relied on the shoe factory for years, but surely there's more to Boschtown than that. We need to pioneer new industries. Boschtown was built on our sweat, and back pain, and muscle aches—and we can build up Boschtown again!"
The applause and upswing of goodwill Colton McConroy anticipated at this moment do not come. He's a little disappointed in himself—he hasn't engaged the imaginations as he thought he could. But what more could he expect from a group of people whose daily successes depended upon the number of finished shoes?
"Boschtown has natural resources, and we need to mine them."
"Have you consulted with Junior Boschley?"
Giggles swell throughout the room, and everyone rolls their eyes.
McConroy wipes his forehead with a handkerchief and stares at the woman sitting on the front row. She stares right back, unaware of the ridicule around her, and the boy and man at her sides are equally intense as they wait for Colton's response.
"Shut up, Ida!"
"Don't listen to her."
"The woman's cuckoo."
"Don't bother this man with your nonsense!"
McConroy waves his handkerchief at the crowd. "No, it's all right. It's a good question. What's your concern with Mr. Boschley?"
"Well, you're interested in digging up stuff from the Tree Man's body. You'd have to get Junior Boschley's permission, since this is his father's corpse."
The citizens of Boschtown mutter. Ida Tate, and her husband, and her son remain oblivious to the hostility around them, and McConroy feels pressured by their honesty. His lips catch in a snarl—not from derision, but confusion. They really do believe this, and Colton can think of no way to respond without offending.
Death and the Miser
The Search for Natural Resources became Boschtown's booming industry. Shoe factory workers are good with shovels and hoes, they learn to push the right buttons on machinery quickly, and their desperation keeps them hopeful in the search. The same can't be said of McConroy; every work day, 8 to 5, he watches, paces in front of the window of his office building. Its cinder-block walls blend into the grey sky, until McConroy's binoculars stand out and hover before the glass, superimposed.
The only family not under McConroy's employ is the Tates. Every day, from 8 'til 5, they observe the proceedings from their front porch, Mitch, and Ida, and Greg. They took Greg out of school, the taunting got so bad. So, Ida decided to homeschool him. That's the best way to make sure he's learning the right things, anyhow. McConroy's fields are only a hundred feet away from the house, and they can't always make out what's going on behind the chain-link fence. At first they were searching for precious and semi-precious stones, then coal. They shouldn't have expected to find such things, unless the Tree Man swallowed a bunch of rings and they got stuck in his organs somewhere. Now McConroy'd moved on to oil. The Tates watched their fellow Boschtonians build the huge drill, or whatever it was. Their stomachs rumble along with the house and everything in it with the drilling. They're glad the Tree Man can't feel any of this.
Kids walking home from school mock them as they sit on the porch. They'll be homeless before too long, just because they know better than everybody else and won't take Mr. McConroy's money. That's not it really—they have nothing against Colton McConroy.
About this time, Greg used to play stick ball at the lot with the other boys. But they put an end to that once Roger Black beaned him right in the forehead.
It's just about time for dinner, just about time for the final whistle across the fence, when a tickling creeps along the soles of Ida's feet. Greg's legs tremble, like when a cramp is so hollow and low, but it bites and twists the muscles. Mitch grabs his wife's and son's hands. They're uneasy as the ground, watching gravel dust and skip. Thunder rumbles below, and a group of men and women run from the machine, exuberant fists punching the air. The Tates retreat inside the house and peek out from behind the curtains of the front window.
It springs forth triumphant, an upside-down waterfall. Its plumes fan in dark yellowish-green. A deeper green than old pus or the slime in pond corners. Not at all heavy like oil, the froth bubbles when it hits the ground, and a lazy haze of smoke rises from green puddles quickly spreading from the point of contact and out past the fence. Workers collapse and writhe, splatter around the green slop as their limbs thrash. Others gag and cover their mouths with their shirts. Crawl over the fallen. Crawl towards the fence before giving up and passing out.
A frantic gaggle of kids scream and sprint in circles down the Tates' street. Mitch and Ida wonder if the boys Greg used to play with made it home okay. The kids come running back down the street scratching their eyes. A girl falls in the Tates' yard and twitches before she's still and foam dribbles from her mouth.
All three Tates cover their noses and back away from the window.
"What did they hit?" Mitch asks. "Gall bladder? Liver?"
Ida and Greg don't care to speculate. This is about the time they would convene at the dinner table, but the subtle essence, a mixture of dead frog, rotten eggs, barf, and old lima beans, slips through the cracks in the walls.
Colton McConroy has done his best Junior Boschley impression, and he can't be reached for comment. Sonya Heil reports at the scene, but it's difficult to understand her behind the gas mask. Until the stink clears, it'll be difficult to tell how many are dead. If the stink clears. . . .
With their own gas masks, the Tates watch all of the TV coverage. Mitch Tate got the masks when the Tree Man first started getting sick and a gas cloud appeared out past Old Johnson's estate, maybe ten years ago. (He'd been sick so long, it was hard to remember when it all started.) Everyone's walled up in their homes, or lying in the streets paralyzed or dead, or out in the fields slathered in green.
"We have to leave," Ida says. "Whatever the Tree Man died of, we're gonna die of it too."
"We don't know how to get out," Mitch says.
"We're not gonna stay here and die," Ida says, pulling her son up by the shoulder and glaring at her husband.
So they head out in their gas masks heavily bundled in winter coats to protect their skin with all of the money they could find stuffed into the pockets. Mitch takes his wheelbarrow along, and as they pass bodies in the street, they give them swift kicks to see if any will rouse. They've collected Quinn Smith in the wheelbarrow and a girl they used to think was Junior Boschley's great-great niece. But Junior never married into a family, and it turns out he was an only child.
The air's as muted as dirty emeralds. Mitch Tate wishes he could see that grey sky right about now. It's disappeared behind twirling smoke serpents careening their necks towards what little light could be hiding up beyond the green.
Out on the edge of town, out on a large, barren lot a couple of miles from the old factory, the Tates arrive at Junior Boschley's mansion. They knock on the doors and all the windows they can reach. When there's no answer, they lift Greg up on the awning, and he scrambles along the second-story roofing. The TV glow from Boschley's bedroom gives his hiding place away, and Greg raps on the window. It's dark in there, but Greg sees a pee bucket by the side of the bed and a shotgun propped up near the lamp stand. All of the clothes Boschley had been wearing, wearing that day when the factory fell, leave a trail from the door to the bed on the floor.
Junior Boschley peeks from behind his sheets and doesn't reach for his gun. Greg pushes the window open, crawls inside, and quickly shuts it.
"I'm so sorry to be intrudin' with all of your grieving," Greg says.
Boschley doesn't pull the sheets down from his face. "There's no way I could have saved Dad. It just cost too much, that kind of upkeep."
Greg doesn't exactly know what to do. He knows he doesn't have the ability to bring any comfort. What could he say to a man who lost his hundreds-of-years-old father? Greg's parents couldn't be forty, and he knows how he'd feel if they dropped dead now. "You know what happened?"
"McConroy? That idiot sure did his research, didn't he? How's he liking that quick buck he made in ol' Boschtown?"
"Everybody's dying, sir."
Boschley clears his throat. "Well, that was always inevitable."
"But, Mr. Boschley, me and my family's leavin'. Can you please tell us how?"
He lowers the sheet past his neck. Stubble sticks from his chin like spiny sea urchins. Boschley really can't say no to the Tates, not after all they've been through, whether the information he gives them will be worth anything or not. He beckons the boy over to his bed.
Ship of Fools
All three Tates take turns pushing Mitch's wheelbarrow, seeking sanctuary out of the Tree Man's mouth. They left Boschley an hour ago, and there's nothing but flatness. No grass. Neither sticks nor stones. Nothing covers the ground but a fine dust, and their soles seep into powder. With the earth so naked, the Tates feel the vibrations underground. It's a gentle sway, a soft back-and-forth, sweet as a lullaby.
"I would've liked to feel his heartbeat, just once," Mitch says.
Ida closes her eyes, pushing Quinn and the little girl before her. She wonders what his heart would have felt like too, before his blood slowed and stopped.
The sky has cleared a bit out here, and Mitch lifts his mask, but he's greeted with another unpleasant smell. Worse than dry spit on the pillow in the morning, right beneath your nose.
"Where we gonna live?" Greg says.
Mitch and Ida haven't really thought about this. They don't figure they need to. There must be plenty of other shoe factories out there for them to find work. "I'm sure we'll have lots of places to choose from," Mitch says.
The tremors increase as they get closer to the mouth. They walk a valley of powder with rows of jagged grey peaks packed closely together. Now the opening's just before them, but instead of an open country and blue sky greeting them from the outside, it's grey. Greyer than the sky they left—charcoal grey. That grey that wants to be black.
The earth swings back and forth, snapping like the arc of a pendulum, and the children fall out of Mitch's wheelbarrow. They don't awaken, and the Tates leave them to look over the final set of peaks just ahead. Greg climbs up on his daddy's shoulders to get to the summit and looks to the sky—at least he thinks that's the sky. His parents join him at the top, and they rest their elbows against the once-jagged apex, now worn marble-smooth after years (how many centuries?) of use.
The head of the great Tree Man bobs in the river. The Tates are sure there's water down there somewhere, underneath the oil coating and soapy foam. Trees on the banks have long shed their leaves and sway in the wind like hanged men. Crushed cars, and tires, and bricks, and splintered wood, and old radios, and TVs, and microwaves, and strips of metal, and side paneling are strewn about the cleared forest, and fires quietly burn the piles.
The corpse of the Tree Man seesaws down the river, and the Tates have no idea what its final resting place will be. They don't know what happened to his river or the forest he used to watch over, but they now understand how he died. They don't know how he waited for his death, but as they bob with him, eyes closing, bodies relaxing, they are sure of one thing.
Nashville, TN native Toiya Kristen Finley has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues and dabbled in some game writing. Her fiction has appeared in Nature, A Field Guide to Surreal Botany, Subtle Edens, Farrago's Wainscot, and Expanded Horizons. Upcoming work will be in Electric Velocipede, Sybil's Garage, and Doorways Magazine. She is the founding and former fiction editor of Harpur Palate.