Fiction Fiction Issue

The Safe

A junkyard mystery

The next morning, a yard crew was busy crushing all the old washing machines and dryers that had come in from the burned-out coin laundry at the edge of town. Snyder Problem, a big ex-preacher whose job it was to stand at an anvil and break bronze and copper out of the ferrous scrap, was cracking open rheostats with a maul when Alva walked by. Snyder was an old man, but his arms were still round and firm. The sleeves had been cut off his blue work shirt at the shoulders, and his biceps jumped each time the hammer fell against the anvil. It was a hot day, and sweat rolled off his bald head in beads. Alva couldn’t imagine Snyder in a shiny suit addressing his congregation back in the days before his church burned down. “Seal welds,” Snyder announced in his big preacher voice.

Alva stopped and looked over his shoulder. “What?”

“Me and Little Dickie was lookin’ over that safe, and ever’ door seam and joint on it is welded up with thin seal welds. Looks like Heliarc work, too, so that dates it.”

“How’s that?” Alva walked over and saw that the mud had dried on the doors and someone had swept it off with a broom.

“Heliarc wasn’t used till the early forties.” Snyder picked up a brass bibcock and broke the iron handle off with a sparking blow of his hammer. “Somebody welded it up about when the sewing folks went out of business. That big ol’ thing’s tight as a sardine can.”

“What for?”

Snyder shook his head slowly and looked Alva in the eye. “It’s a mystery, and I don’t know if you want to solve it or not.” He spat a dart in the safe’s direction. “Some men would just get a backhoe and bury the thing.”

“It’s a safe, not a coffin.”

Snyder picked a brass doorknob off the ground and shook the iron shaft out of it. “I hope it’s a safe,” he said.

Alva took a step back. “You’re letting your imagination run away.”

“I thought that’s what a imagination was for. It didn’t run away, it’d just be like seeing.”

Alva looked at him for a long time. “I didn’t think you thought like that.”

Snyder waved his hammer toward the safe. “You got to use your imagination. You can make stuff with it, like ideas nobody never had before.”

In the cluttered office, Little Dickie draped an arm around the water-cooler jug, holding a triangular paper cup in his free hand. Alva pointed at him. “Seal welds, huh? You decided to burn off the hinges yet?”

Little Dickie shook his head, his long bronze-colored hair shining like a schoolgirl’s. For a welder, he took uncommonly good care of it, always putting it in a ponytail when he was using a cutting torch. “Taking the hinges off won’t help open that type. Big iron rods come out the door and pass into the frame. It’s lying on its back, so it’d be easy to drill it and sniff at the hole to see if dynamite’s in this one. It has a pretty plain smell.”

Alva opened a rusty file cabinet’s bottom drawer and pulled out a 5/8-inch tungsten drill bit. “Here. Put a hole in it, then.”

By 11:30, by standing on the doors and taking turns with an enormous drill that smoked and spat sparks as it ran, Snyder and Little Dickie had managed to drill two holes in the safe, one in each door. A quarter-inch-thick iron skin covered a deep layer of cement backed by another plate of steel. Dickie’s sinuses were smarting and running from all the dust caused by the drill, and he couldn’t smell anything, so Snyder got down on all fours and put his big red nose close to one of the holes. Alva walked up behind him and watched.

Little Dickie hawked and spat as he wound up the big drill’s cracked cord. He had been a foreman at the wire plant, Alva recalled, but had been let go because he couldn’t do enough math. He was supposed to be working in the scrap yard temporarily, but he’d been on the payroll for three years now. Alva looked through the windows of a ’78 Volare that Dickie had been cutting up, and thought about how his junkyard employees generally had fallen down the work ladder for one reason or another. The crane operator had been a trained mechanic, and even the old one-eyed truck driver had once made good money, back when he owned his own shrimp boat. Alva had always been what he was, going neither up nor down in fortune. He thought about how he was forty-five and in a small way envious of the men on his payroll because they at least had done something else in their lifetimes. He looked over at the wrecked and rusted chain link forming the west corner of the yard, where a bramble mountain concealed a heap of uncrushed car bodies and refrigerator doors. The thought that he might straighten the place up a bit crossed his mind and kept on going.

Snyder Problem stood up and blew his nose into a red shop cloth. “Just smells like a hundred-year-old safe to me. Dynamite has a sweet smell, maybe with some rubbing alcohol mixed in.” He gave Little Dickie a look.

“I don’t know,” Little Dickie said. “I guess I could grind off those little seal welds to start with, if you want me to.”

Alva looked at his wristwatch. “Lunchtime. We’ll get on it when I come back at one.”

His house was just down the street, and Donna had a hot lunch on the table for him for a change. She walked over from the stove and stood by the table. “How about that old safe? You get it open yet? We rich?”

He swallowed and looked past her out into the yard, where Claude’s blond body mounded above a bed of asparagus fern. “If nothing is in it, will you start serving me a cold sandwich again?”

Donna didn’t blink. “I might. It’s the old hunter-gatherer thing. You bring home an ox, we eat ox. You bring home a little squirrel, that means slim pickings around here.”

The analogy pleased him for some reason. “This is good stew.”

“Thanks.” She sat down across from him and began to eat. “You think I don’t think much of you?”

“No,” he lied, taking another bite. “But you know, I’m the junkman.”

“You’re Alva.” She pointed at him with her fork. “And you’re the one who decided you’re the junkman.”

He thought about what she might mean. “You’re saying I could be something else?”

She began wiping her plate with a pinch of white bread. “Only you can decide what you want to be.”

“The junk business is all right, I guess, though sometimes I feel like I’m going about it wrong.”

Looking out the window, she said, “I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Be like Claude and take a nap.”

When he finished eating, Alva stood up. “Where’s his leash?”

“Hanging on the coat hook by the door. Why?”

“I’m going to take him down to the yard.”

“What on earth for?” Donna put down her fork, alarmed. “You’ll drop something on him.”

“Naw. I just need his nose for a minute.”

Presented by

Tim Gautreaux, recent winner of the John Dos Passos Prize, taught creative writing for thirty years at Southeastern Louisiana University. His most recent novel is The Clearing.

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