Fiction by S.E. Hartz
As I roll my dad up the hill from the parking lot of the World’s End Country Club, I pray for the clouds to part and make this all worth it. Dad’s gripping his hands to stop his tremors, and I can hear him working the dentures into his gums, nervous like he’s about to show up to a dance he doesn’t have a date for. He hasn’t been back for ten years, not since the office Christmas party when they announced the plant was closing for good. If his doctors ran their calculations right, this coming Christmas may be his last one. I figured my dad would still have teeth when I was home from my first year of college and that he’d definitely live to see me graduate, but I guess I still have a lot to learn when it comes to math.
I had been planning on taking him to the state park to watch the meteors this year, but he protested. If I’m going to see the show one more time, he said – he always called it “the show” – I want to go where it’s darkest. And World’s End, named for its location atop the highest hill in the county, fit the bill. Its sprawling golf course overlooked the river; sometimes, golfers would hit their balls right off the edge and into the waters below. I imagined the river rolling with them all the way down to the shore, how they would spill out like eggs into a sea hours away from here. As we come up the drive and the club hall looms before us, bricks still white enough to illuminate the pitch, my dad stops me.
I want to walk, he says. Remember what it’s like.
World’s End was opened for the families of the workers who staffed the offices and factories of the chemical company on which our town was built. For the company and its loyalists, World’s End represented some sort of corporate egalitarian fantasy, where factory workers could play beach volleyball with the CEO, and everyone’s kid jumped from the same diving board at the pool, belying the fact that we all were jumping from different heights. What a company family should be, the CEO would say every year at the summer picnic, while I hit tennis balls with trust-fund kids and my dad looked on proudly, half listening to his boss and half beaming at what this place had given his daughter.
I wish they could see it now, I think, as we approach and the white-columned porch peeks out from the dark like a grin with its teeth punched out. Four of the five columns are still standing; the fifth was knocked to the ground when a hurricane took out the roof four years ago. The windows of the brick building are boarded or smashed, the white brick marked with crude graffiti. The swimming pools alongside the building are empty, save for weeds growing up from the cracked turquoise, and mosquitos drinking algae-clotted water in the deep end. Behind the building, the golf course is a grassy field, inching its way toward forest. My dad doesn’t know it, but I’ve been back almost every year since the place closed, smashing beer bottles on the tennis courts and inking obscenities on the alabaster walls. I used to think I just liked the solitude, but mostly I like getting to watch glory decay into what it’s always been for most of us.
The company was the lifeblood of our town. They had pioneered a method of bulk synthesis that let them turn out chemical products nearly five times faster than the industry standard, and my dad worked the factory lines for thirty-five years. In the company’s golden age, they employed thousands of men and women to work the factory lines, and turned a profit that jolted our economy out of its stupor. They funded college scholarships for kids in the town, but more often than not those kids chose to stay and become managers or foremen. That was the golden age, before the company abruptly shuttered the factory doors and the founders packed up and moved overseas. It would be years before we found out the truth, that every profit has a price.
Where are the CEO and his daughter now, I wonder? My dad shudders to a halt on the porch steps. His bones are brittle and he can’t get far without a sickly ache in his hips, not to mention the ragged breath in his riddled lungs. The CEO’s daughter was one of my best friends at the club. We would tan ourselves at the pool in summers, making eyes at the lifeguard over the rims of neon sunglasses, and chatting up the concession stand boy for free popsicles. She had vanished abruptly in fourth grade when the company closed, and the kids at school said her dad had moved them to some island. Bet she still has all the popsicles she wants, I think, as I hold a water bottle to my dad’s flaked lips and try to swallow the anger that contorts my face.
Guess it was never meant to last, dad had said coming home from the factory on his last day, pink slip in one hand and cap in the other. The boss did the best he could with what he had, he said, and poured a thumb of whiskey into the company glass I thought he should have been hurling against the side of the building. My dad’s loyalty remained through the ensuing years, even after the cancer cluster popped up downriver from the factory, seeded by a solvent plume. Through the first round of factory-worker lawsuits, he would nod along to company memos on the uncertainty of epidemiological data, the difficulty of predicting adverse consequences when you are on the vanguard of industrial development. It wasn’t until his teeth started to drop from his gums, and the doctor diagnosed him with cancers so numerous they weren’t sure which had come first, that his loyalty started to wane.
You okay, dad? I ask him as he closes his eyes and gathers his breath. Sure, sure, he wheezes out, and I help him back into his chair. I wheel him over the cracked asphalt and around the back of the building, where we set up camp by the pool. Beyond the waving grass of the golf course, the sky yawns thick and black over the river valley, and we wait for the show to start.
Every year we had gathered at World’s End for the Fourth of July, watching fountains of fire launch up from the farm fields across the water. My dad would put his arm around me, sipping a beer as I crammed my mouth with sticky caramel corn and watched the sparks explode across my vision. You’re going to be bright like that, he told me. You’re going to go anywhere you want – across the river, into the sky. Anywhere you want. Even when there wasn’t a party, we would come out to the golf course to stargaze in the summer. I had a penchant for science, and had started to teach him constellations. Big dipper, scooping up the blackness. Orion, aiming arrows to the stratosphere.
I crack open a beer for each of us. You’re not going to tell the doctor on me, are you? he asks, winking, and I clink the neck of his bottle in answer.
It’s true, what he said. I’ve gone across that river, and I’ve gone into that sky. I’m right at the beginning – at college studying the secrets of the universe, all thanks to the years he spent dipping his hands in foreign liquids, breathing foul vapors into his lungs. I want to be a scientist so I can answer questions, like how the same solutions that carry us forward on waves of progress can seep into the ground and poison the wells and streams. Like, how the work that builds families and futures can seep under our skin until it rips our dreams right out. Like, how exactly is it going to go when my dad passes, like will he be so corroded from the inside so that he eventually crumbles into dust, and will the fact that he built a life for me be enough to make up for his?
Kiddo, how long until the show starts? he asks me. I glance down at my watch, hands shaking as bad as his, and I grip them until they stop.
Not long now, dad, I say. Not long.