Fiction Fiction Issue

The Safe

A junkyard mystery
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When the safe came in, Alva’s head was down sideways on his desk. When he heard the junkyard’s box-bed truck grind through the main gate, he got up and stepped out of the office door, giving a hand signal for the driver to get up some speed so he could make it onto the scale through the slurry of mud, battery acid, cinders, burned insulation, asbestos, and grease. The tires pinwheeled in the olive-colored slop, and the truck waddled into place, dripping and sizzling. The crane operator swung an electromagnet over the scrap in the truck bed and began picking up clumps of cast-iron fragments, dropping them in a pile next to the yard’s wracked fence. Alva checked an invoice and saw that this was another load from the demolished sewing-machine factory, tons of rusted-together treadles, fancy flywheels, ornate stands. The magnet crane finished its work in twenty minutes, and Alva, who owned the junkyard, would have returned to his nap, but he noticed that the truck was still squatting low. He watched the crane operator disconnect the magnet and attach a hook to the end of the cable. Little Dickie, the welder, got up into the truck’s box to attach the cable to something. At Little Dickie’s signal, the cable jerked taut, and the whole truck rose on its springs. An antique office safe, at least eight feet high and six feet wide, swung up into the sooty air.

The rambling brick sewing-machine factory had been out of business for sixty years, its huge inventory of parts and partially assembled machines rusting in heaps even after most of the buildings were taken over in the late forties by a tire-manufacturing plant. The new management jammed all the left-behind equipment into the owl-haunted foundry building and went about their business until their tire process became obsolete in the 1970s. A millworks took over the hulking factory but soon failed and was replaced by a warehousing firm, which gradually vacated the crumbling plant as roofs fell in and smokestacks tumbled across the storage lot, startling only pigeons and rats. Finally, a chicken processor bought the site, and the owners decided to tear the factory down as quickly as possible and sell all the scrap metal to Alva. Hills of sewing-machine components, and the machinery that made them, had been coming in for two weeks. The truckload containing the safe was the last shipment.

Discarded safes showed up at the junkyard a few times a year, but this one was older and larger than most, a symbol of a substantial business, which Alva felt his own enterprise was not. He studied the safe’s thick, arched legs that showed off their rusty iron lilies, and he noted the precisely cast rope design rising along the borders of the double doors. He was a man who enjoyed the artful details of things, even of objects he shipped daily to the smelter. The crane operator pulled a lever in his cab and the safe came down, slowly falling back and flattening a Chambers range. Alva walked over as Little Dickie climbed out of the truck box. The crane engine died, and they stood there, listening to the stressed porcelain popping off the range’s shell.

Alva climbed up on the safe and tried the dial, which was pitted and green. It rotated with a gritty resistance. The safe looked as though it had been dug up, and it was slimed with a rusty wet clay. Alva hollered to the driver, “This thing hasn’t been opened. Who told you to bring it on?”

The driver had only his right eye, so he turned his head severely in the truck window. “The head construction foreman hisself.”

Alva stepped back to the ground and bobbed his boot toes in the mud a few times. “Hell, this thing might be full of diamonds.”

The driver looked at him. “It was facedown in a pile with the rest of the junk. Foreman said you bought every piece of iron out there, including this thing.”

“Well, I better call him.”

“It was left behind in a sewing-machine factory. What could be in it?”

“That foreman didn’t want to know?”

“He had thirty cement trucks lined up and ready to pour around where the safe was. Soon’s I loaded up, he run me off.”

“All right, then. Go on to the transmission shop.” The truck slithered away toward Perdue Street, and Alva turned to the burner. “Open it up.”

Little Dickie grabbed a cutting torch off a nearby tank dolly, then stopped to give the safe a look. “I don’t think so.”

“What?”

“Remember Larry Bourgeois?”

Alva crossed his arms. Larry had worked for the yard when Alva’s father ran it. An old riveted safe came in one day, and when Larry started to cut it apart with a torch, it blew up. Larry and the door came down two blocks away. The safe had belonged to a construction firm and held a box of dynamite. “Ain’t you curious?”

Little Dickie pressed the lever on his torch and let out a derisive spit of oxygen. “I’m curious about what’s on TV tonight. I’m curious about what Sandra’s gonna make for my supper.”

Alva walked to his office, a cinderblock cube, and pulled open its leprous steel door. The room’s interior walls were lined with possibly functioning automobile starters, tractor transmissions, boiler valves, chain saws, bumper jacks, and one twin-floppy computer. Though he made good money, Alva was in no way proud of his business. He had started out working part-time for his father, intending to go on after high school to live in New Orleans—maybe take drafting, or even art lessons, since he loved to draw things—but somehow his hours had gotten longer, and then his father had passed away, leaving him with a business that nobody but Alva knew how to run. He looked out his dusty window at the taken-apart world of his scrap yard, a place where the creative process was reversed, where the nasty burnt-umber insides of everything spilled across his property.

His eyes fell on the safe. He thought about how his yard workers had no curiosity, no imagination, how too many people glanced at the surface of things and ignored what was inside. For the rest of the afternoon he tallied the scale sheets and figured his little payroll, but in the spaces between tasks he daydreamed about the insides of the safe, wondered how many times in its life it had been opened and shut. He closed his eyes and imagined himself inside the safe, some sort of invisible eye that saw the light-flashed face of the sewing-machine-factory employee who opened the door each day to retrieve patent drawings, payroll, gold leaf for the fancy embellishments on the machines’ black-lacquered bodies.

That night at supper he sat with his wife, Donna, and his two daughters, René and Carrie. He told them about the safe, and René, a somber child of eight with a narrow head and watery eyes, stopped eating for a moment and said, “Maybe a ghost is inside.”

Alva frowned, but was delighted by the way she was thinking. “Couldn’t a ghost get out by just passing through the metal?”

René stabbed at her potato salad. “At school Sister Finnbarr says our souls can’t get out of our bodies.”

Her sister gave her a sharp look. “Oh, be quiet.” Carrie was eleven, already pretty, and smarter than all of them, and Alva dreaded her growing up and leaving them behind like bits of her broken shell. “A ghost isn’t a soul.”

Alva avoided her eyes. “How do you know?”

Carrie made a little huffing noise against the roof of her mouth. “A soul is either inside you or it’s in heaven or hell. It sure isn’t hiding in some rusty safe sitting in a Louisiana junkyard.”

“Then what’s a ghost?” Alva asked.

René put up her hands, palms forward alongside her pale face, and began to sway from side to side while speaking in a wavering voice. “It’s this smoky thing that drifts around and talks.”

“You’re crazy,” her sister told her. “A ghost is something made up, like in funny books or movies.” The girls began to bicker in rising complaints until their mother stopped them.

Donna put a hand on her husband’s arm. “When you gonna open that thing up? It might have some money in it.”

Alva noticed for the first time since he could remember that her brown eyes were bright, glistening under her sandy bangs. “There’s probably nothing in it but drawings of sewing machines and stuff like that.”

“Or the last payroll.”

“Don’t think so.” Over the years he’d noticed that his wife’s interest in him depended on how much money he brought home. Three years before, when the margin on copper was high, she was his best friend. Last year she’d cooled off a bit. “But there might be something interesting.”

She took a swallow of iced tea and banged the glass down. “What’s more interesting than money?”

He looked at her, wondering if she had finally defined herself. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find out.” He glanced into the darkening backyard, where his yellow dog, Claude, sat placidly with a forepaw planted on the back of a large toad. Claude was an older dog, vaguely like a golden retriever, but really just a yellow dog, which is what happens when every breed on earth is mixed up in the course of a hundred years. The animal had been a gift from Alva’s brother, who worked for a federal agency. Claude had been trained to find bodies, but was never a stellar performer, so he’d been retrained to find drugs at airports, a task at which he excelled only too well. If he found marijuana, he tried to eat it all in a gulp.

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