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Short Story, Failsafe

April 14, 2016

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by Damon Barta

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About Damon Barta

Damon Barta once lived in a place where he could see for miles in every direction. He now lives safely among trees. His work has appeared in several print and online journals. Selected fiction can be found at www.damonbarta.net, and new fiction is forthcoming in Salamander.

I turn the bolt, slide the chain, and twist the tab. By the time I get to the knob, I know that he's heard the thud, the tinkle, the click, and that he's identified the source of each. Not only does he know that the door is being unlocked, he can visualize the specific mechanics that correspond to the sounds. Russ has worked with machines his whole life. He will lie awake until he hears this process reversed. Even then, he'll come down and check the locks for himself. For Russ, there is no such thing as misfortune. Every possible peril is preventable if you are careful enough. There is personal responsibility and there is dereliction, and whichever you choose dictates your fate.

I wish I could just leave quietly. Russ always knows when I slip out in the evening for a cigarette. While he lies in bed listening, his disapproval follows me out the door like a nipping dog. Once, I tried to exit via the sliding glass door in the living room—just one soft click and a smooth whisper away from an unencumbered smoke. Only, after the click and a very brief swoosh, there was a loud thwack as the doorframe collided with a thick wooden dowel inserted between the doorframe and the wall. Then Russ's feet, pointedly heavy on the stairs, descending like the hyperbolic gavel of some reality-show judge.

I found dowels jammed in every window in the house, including the ones upstairs. Given our location in a gated suburb on the edge of what could barely even be called a city, I found it hard to believe that some miscreant carrying a ladder would make it down the street, much less prop it against the front of our house, before someone called 911. I brought this up to him once, but he held up his living trump card: our two kids. Can you be too safe? Why take chances?

I should just quit smoking altogether, but my evening cigarette is the only thing between me and a divorce lawyer. Russ smokes his cigarettes in the daylight. He sees it as his due, a contemporary update to Ward Cleaver's pipe. For him, it is merely one of those things he should stop doing someday. For me, it is a transgression of the Holy Order of Motherhood. There is a cathedral for this. It has triple locks and wood wedged in its windows.

I knew better. I went to graduate school. I read Judith Butler. I read Simone de Beauvoir. Christ, I read her in the original French. When I got into a shouting match with some sorority sisters wearing "slut" t-shirts and calling themselves "third-wave," my college roommate, April, teasingly called me the first fourth-wave feminist.

Still, I am here. My daughter loves princesses. She talks constantly about getting married ("to a boy") and having babies. She's four. My son pretends to drive tractors and carries around a plastic wrench. I never once mentioned princesses, and I tell Lilly that not everyone gets married, and not every girl marries a boy. This doesn't seem to register at all. All of these ideas are built in to the cathedral, part of its form. Like the Jell-O Bundt cake Russ's mother invariably reminds me to make him on his birthday, what we've poured into this house congeals in every cranny and holds its shape.

Russ wasn't particularly devout when I met him. Now he mutters things like, "we should go to church" without explaining why. If I ask, he says "we just should." I don't think he really knows. It's just another one of his contingency plans.

Russ designs machines at work that lift people into the air so they can reach things like power lines or the undersides of freeway overpasses. They are called "manlifts." I used to know a woman who worked on one every day, her flagrant misuse of the product notwithstanding. Redundancy is important to these designs. If one thing goes wrong, there is always another that will prevent a calamity.

We live near a fault line, so calamities are always possible, but we usually just get little tremors and go on with our lives. I am pleasantly surprised when two ceramic bowls crawl slowly out of a cupboard and dive to the floor. I can feel the ground shake. I take the kids into the bathroom and tuck them under me as well as I can until the shaking stops. It only lasts about two minutes, maybe less. The phone rings two minutes later. It's Russ.

"Is everybody okay there?"

"We're fine. You?"

"Fine. They're saying three-point-two."

"Are they?"

"What did you do?"

"Took the kids to the bathroom."

"That's actually not the safest place to be in an earthquake."

"Oh. Well, we're fine, thanks."

"You should go under the kitchen table."

"Right." I sigh audibly, and possibly on purpose.

"Everything else okay?"

"Yes."

"A three-point-two," he says again. "That's pretty big for this area." He says this as though my going to the wrong place in the house had increased the magnitude of the earthquake.

"Are you coming home early?"

"Yeah. I should check the smoke alarms."

"Okay." I don't ask why.

"Sometimes earthquakes disable smoke alarms and nobody checks until it's too late."

"Okay." I am clearly "nobody."

When he gets home he hugs us all perfunctorily and checks the smoke alarms. Satisfied with their continuing functionality, he comes to the kitchen for a beer. Then another. A flush comes to his face, presumably human blood. Something comes to the surface, anyway. He tries out magnanimity.

"You know, the bathroom's not the worst place to be," he says.

"Thanks, Russ."

"Just not the best, that's all." He takes another swallow of beer. "Smoke alarms are fine."

"Good."

He leans over to toss his bottle-cap into the trash and he sees the fragments of our ceramic bowls.

"I thought you said everything was okay."

"I did."

"What's with these bowls?"

---

When he comes home the next evening, he goes for the fridge again, this time without stopping to say hello. A beer doesn't soften him up, either. Neither does a second one. I finally decide to ask him what's wrong, knowing he'll say "nothing" and that "nobody" will be held responsible for making "something" out of "nothing." I should know better. I read Beauvoir in French.

"Company's getting sued."

"Company? Your company?"

He looks at me blankly with powder-blue eyes that once altered my body chemistry, but have since been rendered inert by their consistently dull stare.

"Your company? You?"

"Not me personally. But they're calling the company responsible."

"For what?"

"Someone fell off one of the lifts yesterday."

"During the earthquake?"

"Doesn't matter."

"What do you mean, it doesn't matter? How could an earthquake not matter? Is she badly hurt?"

As serious as the situation seems to be, he can't let this lowly little pronoun pass unchallenged. "He is dead."

"Oh, Russ. I'm sorry." I put my arms around him, and he is so distressed that he almost squeezes me back. "What happened?"

"Guy was working on the I-5 overpass when the quake hit and the lift collapsed."

"How can anyone sue for that? Is it the city?"

"Yes, the city."

"How can they sue for that?"

"Our legal department says they can't."

"Good. It was an accident. A horrible accident, that's all."

"He had a wife and two kids."

He was safe, that is. He followed the rules, obeyed the laws. For Russ this makes what happened impossible, like some dark miracle. I know what he wants. He wants to go into the garage with another beer and be alone with his wife and kids. It's been a tough day for him. I don't suggest otherwise.

---

I get the kids ready for bed. I pull out a book called Doctor Mommy. Lilly demands Cinderella. Russ Jr. doesn't have to make demands. He gets everything before he even knows he needs it. This doesn't stop him from making demands. "Mommiiee," he says. Give me one of everything. Eventually they sleep.

Russ hasn't come in yet. I want a cigarette, but I don't want to go out just as he's coming in. I go to bed instead.

Russ may or may not have slept, but it's five a.m. and he's up. I find him in the garage, on top of a metal frame with wheels. He's got a wrench in his hand and he is surrounded by piles of parts: nuts, bolts, beams, pipes, rods, joints. Some things I think are called "flanges." Other parts I can't name.

"What are you up to?"

"Working."

"On Saturday? What are you working on?"

He mutters something, and I can only make out vowels and syllable stresses. It sounds like "mayonnaise."

"What?"

"A FAILSAFE!" he snaps. This is not a reply. It is a command that "nobody" knows how to interpret. She goes back inside without a word to make breakfast for the kids.

---

I never meant to be nobody. I just wanted to be safe. I felt lost, vulnerable, exposed. Russ was reliable. Russ was available. Russ liked what I was wearing. It seems incredible now how we took the results of hasty decisions based on fundamental needs and turned them into fantasies that only children could believe. Then we believed them. Then we made children with fundamental needs.

---

It's about three in the afternoon when he sticks his head through the door. "Lilly! Do you want to help Daddy make a scarecrow?"

She is in the garage before he finishes asking. I sit across the table from Russ Jr., who looks at me suspiciously. What does he suspect me of? Nothing, of course. He is a baby. He tries out all kinds of expressions and attaches meanings to them later. His expressions of suspicion will come first. He'll attach theories to this suspicion when the other boys tell him what the crime might have been.

I come out to see the "scarecrow." It is a pair of insulated overalls and a cotton shirt stuffed not with straw, but with rocks. It has a canvas bag for a head, and on it there is a face that startles me. It looks like April.

---

April and I kissed each other one night, more than once, and more than casually. We got half undressed. I impulsively licked her face and came away with a mouthful of foundation. It didn't taste bad. It didn't taste like anything at all. I left a spot on her cheek where little blood vessels showed through. We never did anything like that again, but we did talk about it from time to time. I think, now, that she was waiting for me. April came out to her family a few months later. I still didn't know if I liked boys any better than girls, but I started seeing boys. April moved out. We didn't stay in touch, but I heard from a friend that she'd stopped dressing like a girl and wearing makeup.

---

Lilly had drawn the scarecrow's face with sidewalk chalk. It had big green eyes, long black lashes, lush red lips, and a small bleached-out splotch on its cheek.

Meanwhile, Russ had finished his model. It looks like the pictures of the lift that are on his company website, but it is less than half the size and has several large springs under the platform that I hadn't noticed in the picture. April the scarecrow is to be a test dummy.

"You made your own lift," I say, or maybe ask.

"Yep. To scale. Now I just have to test the failsafe."

"How are you going to do that?"

His tone is never more amicable than when he gets to explain something that has mechanical parts and subscribes to all the laws that such parts cannot help but obey.

"I'm going to put the dummy on the platform, extend the lift-arm, and try to destabilize the platform."

"Destabilize," I say, savoring the titillating sounds of anarchy.

"Try to make the dummy fall." He thinks I was asking a question.

"When, where, and how are you going to destabilize the platform?"

He answers in bullet-points. "Right now. Front yard. Use my truck. Keep the kids inside. They can watch out the window."

We watch as Russ drives onto the front lawn with the lift attached to the trailer hitch on his truck. He positions the lift in front of the bay window on the first floor and gets out. He turns a key and pushes some buttons. April and the platform begin to rise as the latticed joints of the arm straighten and push. April's head disappears, then the rest of her. Soon, the whole platform has left our field of vision. Russ gets back in the truck and starts it. The truck also disappears, but it is presumably responsible for the violent jerking of the lift that ensues. The kids seem fascinated by the spectacle. I, too, am fascinated, but for different and unsettling reasons. They just like watching things move in ways they've never seen things move before. I watch waiting for a body to hit the ground, and I'm disappointed when one doesn't.

"So far so good," Russ says when he walks in the door. He's left the lift on the front lawn.

"What now?"

"More tests tomorrow. What's for dinner?"

Dinner. Always up to me, but I hadn't thought of it.

"I thought we'd order pizza."

Russ senses dereliction.

"Oh, okay." I see pork chops and mashed potatoes in his ungrateful eyes.

"Or I can make us something..."

"No, it's fine. Pizza is fine."

He goes to the bathroom to scrub his industrious hands. I pick up the telephone with my indolent fingers. The kids celebrate.

When the pizza arrives I turn the bolt, slide the chain, and twist the tab. A young woman, standing at the door, maybe twenty-two years old, had expected this to take even longer than it did. I catch her smooth, smartly eye-lined face in transition. Her eyes roll back to the front, and something like a wry smirk becomes a courteous smile so quickly that I'm not even sure it was ever there. "Hi there," she says, producing a large soggy box from a steaming bag. "Sixteen fifty-four."

I give her a twenty, and she makes a perfunctory gesture towards making change which I wave off. She thanks me and pivots towards a crappy little Buick.

"Wait," I say. She turns around. I pull out a ten. "Will you think I'm weird if I ask you something personal?"

"It depends on how personal, I guess." She sees the ten. "Try me."

"How much did you pay for that car?"

She squints. "That's personal?"

"Can I try again?"

"Sure."

"What would you do if your car broke down?"

"Call a tow truck."

"What would you do if it cost too much to fix?"

"Find a different job and take the bus."

"Where do you live?"

She isn't sure about this one. I produce another ten. "I just mean what part of town."

"East side. In an apartment."

"Husband, boyfriend, kids...roommate?"

"No."

"Do you feel safe there?"

She looks confused now, and a little worried. "Um, yeah. Shouldn't I?" She looks over at April perched atop the lift. "I should get back to the store. Busy night." She heads back to the Buick, waving the two tens over her shoulder. "Thanks a lot."

---

Russ devours five slices of pizza while somehow maintaining a palpable disapproval of it as a pork-chop proxy. Lilly pulls off half the toppings she ordered and Russ Jr. slams his hands on the table when I won't give him a whole piece. After two hours that should have taken ten minutes the kids are in bed and Russ is asleep on the couch. I go to bed.

I'm up for good at about dawn and I head for the bathroom while I still can. I sit down on the toilet and start to relax. Then I look towards the window and the pee comes out in a sudden burst. There is someone there. She wears garish makeup and has saggy canvas jowls. It is April. Only, now that we're face to face, she looks like a child's sloppy chalk drawing. The context comes back to me suddenly and the geography of our house comes a bit more slowly, but I know that the raised platform of the manlift is just below the bathroom window.

I stare at that bleached cheek and all the morning aches gather in my chest. As close as we were, I had only really known April before she dropped the makeup, the dresses, the pretenses, and moved out into the unsafe world with her blood vessels bared. I leave the bathroom and retrieve my cache of cigarettes from a tampon box in the hall closet. When I come back I stand at the door for a moment, where she looks more like the April I knew. Then I go to the window. I turn the lock, remove the dowel wedged between the pane and the wall, and I climb out onto the platform.

I light a cigarette. April declines. She quit years ago. But then she quit wearing makeup too. This is not April. This is a test dummy filled with rocks. This manlift is not made for real people. The ground gives out beneath me.

The failsafe breaks my fall. Instead of crashing to the ground, I drop about six feet and there is a gentle bounce. I am suspended now in front of the bay window with a lit cigarette in my hand and a bag of rocks in my lap. Russ and the kids are looking out at me. Lilly stares raptly with a soggy waffle in her hand. Russ Jr. is crying, and Russ is shaking his head. Nobody knows what to do. She will come back inside and try to explain herself, apologize, smooth things over. Maybe do some laundry. I will stub my cigarette out on that dead-eyed face behind the glass and snarl at it in French. I will call a lawyer. The kids won't understand, but they'll get over it. There is no way to leave the cathedral quietly.