The following is excerpted from Jonesbridge:Echoes of Hinterland by M.E. Parker from Diversion Books, coming July 7th. Though this excerpt is not the beginning of the novel, it was the first passage set in Jonesbridge and inspired the trilogy as well as the short stories “The Harlot of Balitmore” (2009 MacGuffin) and “Cincinatti Steam Shovel Blues” (2013 Colored Lens)
Standing behind his grandfather’s house in the twilight of early summer, fireflies wheeled around him, blinking on and off. Mesmerized by their flight, Myron followed their path through the air until one landed on his arm with a sting. Behind that one, other blinks of light, sparks, alighted on his workbench where they twinkled into darkness taking his grandfather’s house with them. Myron extinguished the cutting torch and hammered flat the points of an iron gear he had just reshaped into the form of a star, which ended up only about half the size of the palm of his hand.
With a dull thud he banged the star a second time, flattening it as much as he could. Then he pinched the tongs around its middle and held it under the overhead lamp to inspect its shape. Mostly star-like he figured, with the exception of the fifth point, which was folded over a bit.
When Myron noticed the starry shadow climbing up the brick wall by his table, the star having been under his lamp for several seconds, he checked over his shoulder to see if anyone else had seen it. Then he dipped his creation into a bucket where it responded with a hiss, after which he situated the star into a clamp, reached for his awl, and scratched the words Sindra’s Star across the middle. It wasn’t a real engraving, but still something special, though stars of any kind, especially real ones, were a rarity through the blanket of smoke over Jonesbridge.
“What was that?” Rolf, the salvage floor boss, turned on his heel. Myron froze. “Let’s have a look.” Rolf positioned his magnifying monocle over his good eye, squeezing the other socket shut, and leaned over Myron’s workbench. Rolf was a scraggy rope of a man. He was bone-thin, same as the rest of them, but he had more of what passed for muscle than anyone Myron had seen in Jonesbridge, and he stood at least a head taller than any slog on the line—everyone but Myron. Standing eye to eye with Rolf, maybe even a smidge higher, made it difficult for Myron to avert his eyes.
Myron looked away, but that showed disrespect. Down, right, then left, and finally his gaze landed on Rolf’s head—of all places, Rolf’s scalp—a landscape of moles and freckles between paltry tufts of hair. That view gave Myron a grim reminder of what he had to look forward to in the near future. He dreaded winding up like everybody else, but, of all the duties in Jonesbridge, Myron was glad they’d assigned him to salvage. It allowed him to follow in the footsteps of his tinkering grandfather who constructed useful contraptions from nothing but junk.
“Just an old gear,” Myron said.
“I’ve never seen a gear like that.” Rolf grabbed the tongs and fished the item out of the bucket, adjusting his monocle to examine the star, now dripping with sanitizing liquid. “Gear, huh?” Rolf said. His magnified eye reminded Myron of the mammoth sea creatures in his grandfather’s stories.
“A gear that I changed a little,” Myron said. He played dumb, bowing his head, eyes on the floor, an act that had gotten him out of trouble many times.
Rolf held the star to the light. “What’s that scribble?” he pointed to the words Sindra’s Star scrawled into the metal.
“I don’t know,” Myron said. He was thankful that, like everyone else in Jonesbridge, Rolf couldn’t read. Myron scanned the factory for Sindra, who worked on the other side of salvage, wondering if she’d noticed Rolf at Myron’s station.
Rolf whipped around to survey the factory floor, eyeing a bank of workers on the other end of the expansive salvage bay. “What—or who do you keep looking at?” His monocle fell from his eye and snapped back to swing on its leather strap. He stood a bit on his tiptoes, so he could inch up to the same height as Myron before he spoke. “The carpie? Is that who?”
When any man called Sindra a carpie it made Myron want to punch him in the mouth. Sindra had been a rail-walker when the orange shirts caught her, hiking the railroad tracks in search of pockets of civilization. They were orphans, trinket merchants, pickpockets, fortunetellers, but not carpies, who, rumor had it, did nothing but attend to the sexual needs of soldiers.
“Thousands of your countrymen are getting blown to smithereens, and you’re wasting time with this?“ Rolf pressed into Myron until their noses touched, until Rolf’s breath, heavy with the odor of cinders and salt pork, mixed with his own. “Nobody,” he yelled, swatting the workbench with a strip of angle iron, “ever gets out of here with anything other than the bare ass they were born with.”
“Yes, sir. I mean, no, sir. Nothing leaves.”
“Back to work.” Rolf flipped the star over in his hand before pitching it into the steel bin on Myron’s bench.
Myron reached for the rope above his head and gave it a tug. A jumble of crumpled metal gears tumbled through a door in the wall. Parts from a hand-crank food processor, he figured, the kind that pulverized bone into meal for the old folks to mix with water and suck through a straw. Myron selected a pair of needle-nose pliers from his tool rack and began the process of extracting tiny steel teeth from the gear, glancing at his iron bin, checking up on the star.
Yanking teeth off chains, toggling, ticking and tocking, wrenching, cutting, splitting one piece of dead machinery after another, Myron bided time until his shift ended. He had only the throb of the turbines and tinkling of metal scraps to mark the seconds off the day. Not resting or eating, or even planning his escape mattered more at the end of his shift than seeing Sindra.
Another yank of the rope and the flap door swung open, this time jewelry and personal accoutrements rolled onto his workbench, things Myron never saw anyone actually wear. And with this batch, a purpling finger that resembled a bloated frankfurter with knuckles, still wearing a bejeweled ring that must have been on too tight to remove in the field. Myron reached for his lime shaker and powdered the finger with lime for the odor, but it still had a smell, a human scent that no amount of lime could absorb.
Myron sucked in a deep breath and positioned his sorting bins in the proper order: rinse, sanitizer, fodder, material. He sandwiched the finger with his tongs and wrangled the pliers around the ring, gold with sapphires that would have shimmered if not for the lime. He dipped the ring into the rinse bin then dropped it into the sanitizer where it fizzled into a turbid green liquid. The finger he tossed into the fodder bucket, picturing the person that once wore that ring. It would have been easy to pass them all off as the faceless enemy, but he often put a face behind the rubble he processed. It made his job more important somehow, more personal than just transferring a digit from one bin to another. He imagined the hand that owned that finger, maybe a woman’s hand, a young woman with a mane of black hair spilling down her neck, a mole or two on her cheek and tattoos of beetles and butterflies fluttering up her arms, living alone in a hut on the beach near a harbor full of ancient ships where the rising tide smashed against a coastal fortress of rock. The image of the rest of her body, parts, such as this finger, spread to all quadrants, exploded his dream. So he bid her farewell to rest in peace.
A garbled whistle echoed from the voice box on Myron’s table, signaling the end of his shift. He located his buckets and hoisted them one by one to the counter, starting with silver, then copper, steel, tin, and gold. Myron gazed at the green santitizing liquid bubble across the rack like a waterfall into the river of sludge that churned under the floor.
Aside from his orientation and time in the stretcher block a few months ago, today had been the longest day yet in Jonesbridge, longer than full-clock double-shifts, slower than half-ration detention stints, more painful than losing a toe to the frost last month. Myron shifted his weight. Pain shot through his abdomen. He imagined Sindra, how lovely and wild she was. Then he predicted what this place would certainly do to her given enough time, that it might snuff out her spirit that had inspired him from the first time he saw her when she fought off the guards.
Myron surveyed the line of his fellow piecemeal workers, heads down, eyes on their strainers. Behind him, only the aft wall. Across the aisle, Rolf counted the line-foreman’s gold. Myron reached behind his back, keeping his smock over his private areas, and relaxed his anus with a sigh—relief, at last. A small red ball, one of his grandfather’s fishing antiques, popped out into his hand, something his grandfather had called a bob. It was one of the only things of his grandfather’s he had managed to keep, and, as painful as it had been to smuggle in, that bob was Myron’s only idea at getting anything out of the factory.
He glanced up again, checking for any eyes that might be on him, and tugged the hem of his smock until he found a loose thread. He jerked the thread and rubbed it along the side of the workbench until the string snapped. Then he threaded it through a hole in the red bob, where fishing line would have once dangled with bait until a fish pulled it under. “Visual confirmation,” his grandfather had instructed. “Float goes down and you’ve hooked one.”
On the other end of the string, Myron tied a knot to a loop he had fashioned on the star, the prize Rolf had been so sure would never make it out of the factory that he left it in Myron’s iron bin. He flipped over the star and ran his finger across the scratched letters. Then he checked again for anyone watching and tossed it into the small waste tank under his workbench along with what was left of his sanitizer solution. After stepping on the flush lever, the star disappeared into the green. Tied above it, the red plastic ball bobbed for a moment, spinning around a vortex until it vanished after one last desperate bob to the surface.
“All right, Myron. Your turn,” Rolf bellowed. Myron’s head jerked up, his eyes transfixed on the swirling pool of green liquid. Rolf motioned to his assistant who snapped to his side to help him process Myron’s work for the shift.
Behind the musical clank of gears and gold plunking into bins, Myron stood on his toes, trying to get a look over Rolf, searching for Sindra, trying to catch a glimpse of her face, read whether she had seen or heard Rolf’s ruckus at Myron’s bench earlier, but her back was already turned, waiting for exit procedures.
“Five wooley, Myron,” Rolf stated, stacking five wooden tokens embossed with the industrial hammer seal on the table, coins so worn their centers were pocked with craters about the size of a rubbing thumb.
All his daydreaming and work on the star and the God-forgotten pinch of that fishing bob scraping his insides had cost Myron productivity. The last worker out, he stopped at an arched door. Martha, who made sure everyone who had entered the factory also exited, straddled the stool by the doorway, her limbs narrow and fallow, almost indistinguishable from the legs on the stool. “Come on,” she barked. “Night shift is waiting.”