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Bonnie Nadzam


Rex Boone drinks each of four, then five pints of beer, clutching each glass with a thumb and two fingers before the waitress with the perfect English finally approaches him. She takes his elbow in her small brown hand, and he lifts the visor of his welding helmet to survey the crowded pub: no wife in a blue nightgown can see him; no six-year-old daughter in bloody pink Keds can follow.

Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he stumbles from the wicker barstool and the waitress leads him through the place, through a hot, damp kitchen rich with burnt sesame oil and soap and spoiled shrimp. Outside in the dark, he moves his wallet to his front pocket, and trails the woman through rows of tiny scrap wood and sheet metal shacks. They stop before the same small, rectangular building, where the waitress knocks once, and leaves him alone in the dark. In a moment the door is opened by the same slick guy smoking a cigarette, wearing the same dirty yellow shirt, and looking at Rex as though they’d never met, as though they’d made no deal. Rex opens his wallet and gives the man two hundred dollars.

"It’s three hundred."

He takes out another hundred.

"If you want lights on, it’s extra."

Rex looks back at Jessie, standing dumb in her jean skirt two inches behind him in the dark, a bright swirling blue bowling ball in her arms. Blood running down her legs and soaking her bobby socks and staining her pink Keds. Speechless. Glassy dead fish eyes. Bleeding fucking everywhere.

"No," Rex tells the man. "I don’t want to see."

Blood on her legs. Her underwear gone. Her underwear, in fact, still missing. Her jean skirt twisted up funny and her bare skin, her bare crotch, bleeding. That’s how he found her, beneath the lamppost, in the parking lot behind Burger King, beside the bowling alley. And she, too young to be bleeding. Oh Christ, Jessie. Jessie it’s daddy. Talk to me Jessie. Look at me Jessie look at my eyes. Jessica. Jessica. Oh Christ, oh Christ. Come on. Up. He’d picked her up in his arms like a rag doll and carried her across the parking through the twilight, running, and put her in the front seat. Blood on the seat, on her legs, on her bobby socks, on her pink slip-on Keds. He called 911, shaking, holding Jessie’s forearm, watching her bleed. And he waited for the ambulance, saying over and over it’s okay, it’ll be okay, it’s okay, it’ll be okay. Not knowing how to stop bleeding like that, reaching into the back seat and grabbing his black windbreaker and holding it to her crotch to catch the blood, covering up her crotch like a terrible secret, a gaping wound, and Jessie’s face paler every moment, her face receding behind her face, and Rex held her, blood all over his khaki shorts, while he called Helen on his phone, who heard the sirens coming in the background, and whom he told nothing, an accident, he said, she’s alive, a little bleeding, she’s okay, he told his wife, who tore into the emergency room wide-eyed and crying and shaking like some other woman, running and pushing people aside.

"She is brand new," the guy says, grinning in the doorway of the lopsided shack. "Like we said."

Rex nods. Sweat rolls down the backs of his legs.

Inside the small room is a twin mattress on the dirt floor. The air chokes him with perfume. As promised, there is no light. His eyes adjust and he sees there, on the mattress, in a cheap, bright pink cotton dress, a girl with long tangled black hair. She’s up against the wall, hugging her knees.

"So you want to dress her up then?" The man asks. "Something like that? It’s extra."

Rex shakes his head, wipes the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. The girl is older than Jessie, but not much. Maybe ten, eleven. From the doorway, a narrow rectangle of dim yellow light, the man barks something at her in a language Rex doesn’t recognize or understand. The girl lets go her knees, and the man leaves Rex alone in the room with her. A minute passes. Two. His loud breathing and the blood roaring in his ears and he tries to stand steady.

"Do you speak English?"

The girl answers with a sort of trembling sigh that could mean yes, could mean no, could be a hushed breath between sobs. He takes a step toward her and like a mechanical doll she suddenly lies down, stiff as a board. Rex stops where he is. She is so small. What can he say? What sound can he make to reassure her? He’s not here to hurt her, he’s never hurt her, never raised a hand against her. Over three months since she’s said a word to him, or let him touch her. A hundred nights she flinches when he comes to tuck her in, her small arms and legs shaking in her lavender sheets. To what dark rooms, to what filthy corners, to what ends of the earth will he be driven to get her sit up, to smile, to say goodnight. Rex looks at her there on the filthy mattress and takes a step closer, trying not to scare her and knowing that she must be scared. Because after all, there she is, and here he is, and this is not the 747 carrying him from Houston to Singapore. This is not prepping the pipe or cladding the pipe or welding the pipe. This is not a bowling alley or the Boone’s big white sparkling house in Houston. This is not the crowded ferry baking in the middle of the channel. This is not dredging the bottom of the ocean to make room for ships and hundred-million-ton buoyancy platforms. It is not the bright red-bricked hotel decorated with huge green glassy leafed palms and plastic orange flowers and beautiful brown-skinned maids with white white teeth who make Rex Boone feel like a thief and a king and lucky son of a bitch, all for thirty-eight dollars a night, plus he gets continental breakfast, plus he gets the open bar, plus he gets free pay-per-view, plus he gets jets in the bathtub, plus he gets a clean white cotton robe.

"I’m not going to touch you," he tells Jessie, on his knees in the dirt beside her lavender canopy bed. "Not even once, okay?" He points to her, then to himself, and shakes his head. How much does she know? Where is her family? Did they send her to work weeks ago, not knowing what would happen to her? Or was she swept away only this morning because there she was in a new pink dress? Whatever her past she seems to understand the rules of this place, this night, and has already stoned herself against it. Rex puts his fingers on the edge of the greasy mattress, and everything is lit up and the wood floors are polished and the deep low rumbling of all the bowling balls and the ringing electric music from the arcade games and the smell of popcorn and the pop music overhead. Jessie? Where’s Jessie? The girl on the bed is shaking, all her tiny leg muscles tensed up, each thigh maybe four inches in diameter, and Rex is dizzy with anger. This girl? I would tear her apart.

Rex looks around the filthy little room. Excuse me, ma’am—was there a girl in the bathroom? No? Blonde hair? Green t-shirt? No? You’re sure?

The girl in the pink dress turns her head and stares at the wall. Rex stoops, his head is level with hers.

Have you seen my daughter?

She’s there, on the airplane, in the aisle between the seats in coach, on the strip of superflat blue carpet, beneath that huge man in the navy blue suit. The man’s mouth hanging open, his lips wet, his huge, his giant pelvis going, moving like that. Couldn’t anybody see what was happening? Not the kind of guy you’d expect. The lawyer type. Educated, rich. And Jessie, his daughter, her little jean skirt hitched up around her hips. Her underwear gone. Where? Already slipped inside that man’s dark silk pocket. Rex rubs his face with his hands and peers through his fingers. Checking the overhead bins and tray tables, the stewardess steps over Jessie and the man. Doesn’t even fucking notice this guy, who is filling the geometric groove with arc metal. Everyone just sits back in their hard hats and safety goggles and watches him do it, as if this job were the most natural thing in the world. Rex points inside the pipe with his gloved hand and presses his finger against the uneven beveled steel for those who haven’t seen this yet. It’s a long day, and hot. Everyone is red-eyed and stinking. Rex passes multiple welds into the inside diameter of the pipe, then stops. "We prepared the groove as single bevels around the circumference of the end of the piece of pipe, so there’s something to fill. See that?" The men nod in their hard hats. Rex points to the inside of the pipe. "Some pipe has cladding on the inside," he says. "This to keep H2SO4 from forming—that can be powerfully corrosive. So we bond the pipe. Stainless steel is bonded to a substrate of carbon steel. There are two methods for that—roll bonding, which you all know about, and explosion bonding, where we actually explode something inside of the pipe. In a very controlled manner. I myself have never actually done it." He looks at the girl in pink on the mattress and swears that it’s true, he’s never, and the girl shivers her tiny brown body up against the flimsy plywood wall.

The plane comes down through a curtain of rain and steam on the runway, so Rex can’t see out the windows. Just a big man in the glass pulling a little girl’s spindly arm, and saying what? I saw you and your daddy trying to win that little stuffed monkey out of the glass case? Come on back and I’ll get it for you? Telling Jessie what to lure her out of the bowling alley? Candy? Nobody does that. No kid follows any man, in a shirt and tie or in rags or a clown suit for candy. Kids know better. How does it work? What does that kind of man say to a girl like my Jessie was, to make her lose her head?

"Tomorrow we’ll go shopping and you can get whatever you want." Helen pulls the blue felt blanket with the satin ribbon edging up beneath Jessie’s chin. "I’m going to sleep here beside you on the floor."

"You are not sleeping beside her on the floor. "

"Yes I am," Helen hisses over her shoulder.

"This isn’t healthy."

"Healthy? You want to talk about healthy? You brought her to that place. You brought her there. Bowling Rex? And you left her standing there alone? You were on the phone, weren’t you? On your BlackBerry. Where there was a bar full of god knows what kind of filthy stinking men? You want to talk to me about healthy?"

"If you want me to leave why don’t you just ask?"

"Haven’t you already packed? Five thousand miles of pipe and a well to draw oil up from under the sea," she says, "so a man can run his car from his house to the bowling alley."

"Excuse me sir? Can I?" The woman beside him is trying to get out of the seat, into the aisle, off the plane.

"Oh." He looks around. "Oh. I’m sorry. I’m sorry." He stands, and reaches overhead for his satchel, de-boards, and sits down on the dirt floor beside the mattress. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he removes his safety glasses and, careful not to touch the girl, sets them on her face, shielding her eyes. The girl reaches up, touches the glasses, and smiles. Rex grins back, and points inside the pipe with his gloved hand.

"On the inside diameter," he says, "we slide an internal line-up clamp that lines up the insides of the pipes and forces them round. The clamp is fitted to the inside diameter, see? Residual stress compromises the roundness of the pipe when it’s cut, and the clamp, operated by powerful hydraulics, forces them round."

"That is a ton of fucking power," Jack says.

Rex looks at the shaded form of Jack through his welding helmet. It is, he thinks. It’s power you don’t need because the women out here will do whatever you ask, hell, you don’t even have to ask. He’d heard about them. Of course he had—of course the men at the plant in Houston had winked: going to Batam? For how long? God, it was true what they said about these women. Their round brown faces and their white white teeth. Their skirts and their skinny shapely legs, brown, and their skirts and blouses and dresses and robes so bright, pink and turquoise and yellow and green.

"Excuse me, sir."

"Welcome to Batam, sir."

"Watch your step."

In the morning in the hotel corridor he bumps into a maid who smiles and asks if he isn’t looking for her? No, he says, coffee. She smiles. Would he also like to have her? Just the coffee. She points to the glowing red exit sign. Downstairs, she says, kitchen is always open.

Their English soft. Whispery. Secrets in words that were always familiar now suddenly rendered strange in this place five thousand miles from home. Women talking to him as if he were a good man, a reasonable man, a regular hardworking guy. Smiling and calling him sir when he should be at home in Houston with their dumb daughter. Their daughter who’s forgotten how to talk at all. Who’s forgotten what language is for: it’s okay Dad. Not your fault Dad. I should have known better Dad. Little sentences. Just like that. Easy easy. Easy enough, you would think, for a fucking six year old kid to manage.

On the other side of the dirty dark room, Jessie hurls the milky blue ball between her skinny legs, down the superflat aisle. Rex sets his BlackBerry and beer on the bar counter beside the girl in the bright pink dress when four Malaysian waiters come by with huge platters of the men’s orders: whole fish, deep fried. Rex sips the bottled water and takes deep and even breaths while the other guys talk shop, talk whores, their knives and forks ringing and flashing as they eat.

"There’s just a ton of oil out there."

"…believe the girls around here?"

"…take the Arctic Circle, hell, take the California coast…"

"…some of the prettiest women I’ve ever seen in my life…"

"…I’m talking enough oil for years—two hundred years, three hundred…"

"Pretty, hell. Aggressive. I mean hell."

"…for myself? Shit. I can’t wait to get drilling…"

"…The problem is the tectonic activity. Tsunamis. How do you build to withstand those kinds of forces?..."

"…much less need for change of habit than some would have you think."

"What they want are powerful husbands."

"Well, something like that, you need an extremely sharp instrument."

"My wife told me I even shake hands with a prostitute over here, she’ll know…"

"…take Alaska. Take the coast of Florida…"

"…this is something called a complete penetration weld…"

"…take the entire Indian Ocean…"

"…the whole world, one little boat…"

"…sort of quick mistake in your standard bead weld that could be catastrophic…"

"Those girls don’t shake hands, Amir."

"…all the resources a man needs, anything you want…"

"I just wanted to come. Sit by you. Okay?"

"…Santa Barbara? In sixty-eight? Sixty-nine? Something like eight hundred square miles of spilled oil. All the way to Mexico."

"…she couldn’t be older than fourteen, waving at us, winking, lifting her skirt and flashing her bare cunt…"

"That’s just supply and demand."

"I’m just going sit down here, beside you. Okay?"

"…accident on that scale? A world of regret. A world of regret."

"…edge of an explosion of industry these people aren’t prepared for…"

"Didn’t all the men on that boat drown?"

"…pretty little island though isn’t it?"

"Gives me the shivers."

By the time the meal is over, Rex is slick with sweat, his heart pounding high up in his chest. In his hotel room he sits on the bed by the phone. He promised Helen not to call. But he wants to call. He needs to call. This is the wrong place for him.

"We need to feel safe, Rex," she says into the phone and Rex looks out into the street below, quiet, mostly dark, little splashes of neon light: karaoke bars, dance clubs, late-night massage parlors. "We need to heal."

As if they had somehow collapsed into one person. As if what happened to the girl had happened to Helen. Rex knows there’s a connection between them he can’t understand. But Helen’s talking like she’s more than her own body. They’re sharing stomach cramps and headaches.

"I’m her father." Rex says through his teeth. "For fuck’s sake I found her like that Helen do you have any idea what that was like?"

"Her father? Who was supposed to protect her if not her father?" The better to listen, Rex sets down his satchel beneath the sign for baggage claim, and stares at his wife, standing beside a rack of glossy Chinese magazines, holding a hot cup of coffee in her pale white hand. "Who was supposed to keep his eyes on all the boys and men who ever would glance her way and think of her body and think of fucking and who was supposed to watch all that and stop all that and keep her clean and keep her safe if not her goddamned father?"

Rex drops the weight in his body to his knees to keep his balance. He looks around the airport, down the fluorescent concourse narrowing into a dark metallic belt of automatic rollers bringing a single length of pipe into place, locating the weld joint right beneath the arc welding equipment. Rex lifts his helmet, and faces the men. "When you need continuity from one piece of fabrication to another, if you’re making a big leg out of tubular, you need a full penetration weld."

"Holler," Jack says solemnly behind his safety glasses.

"Would you pay attention?" Helen barks.

Rex stares at her. In a quick movement she removes the plastic lid from the coffee cup and throws it at him, scorching coffee all over his yellow oxford and he cries out in pain and all the people, all the pretty Chinese women in the airport, turn and stare.

"Damn it!" Rex hisses at his wife, who reaches in her blue nightgown for one of the magazines, covered with lacy black Chinese characters Rex can neither read nor understand.

"A message for Mr. Boone."

Holding his leather luggage, the men stand behind Rex at the concierge’s desk while he reads the message from Jack Ranck, an old friend, an electrical engineer from Morgan City, Louisiana. The women walk past in white white dresses, these are the maids, these are the women who will clean his room and scrub the rim of his toilet bowl seat and carry him fresh towels and make his bed. The note says all the guys are meeting at a fish restaurant halfway to town and Rex should be there and hell of man to come all this way, Rex, to help us out on this project. This is big time. Big money. Big innovations. You’ll be glad you’re here, in this dark little bowling alley where no one will know what you do to this girl. Anything you want. All the resources a man needs.

"Oh," one of the maids cries, shaking her head and pointing at his chest. "What happened to your pretty shirt?"

Rex looks down at the wet brown stain. "My wife threw coffee at me."

The woman nods as if she understands, so kind, and Rex softens his voice as much as he can. He thinks of Helen’s voice. Her singing voice, her story time voice. Is this little pink-dress girl a Christian, or a Muslim? Would she recognize Jingle Bells? He tries it, humming, skipping notes that are too high in his throat. The girl looks at him, and blinks. Rex smiles and puts some of the words into it.

"Jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to ride."

Blond hair! Green t-shirt! A jean skirt. This tall! She was just here! Bar. Bowling alleys again. So many green t-shirts. Sweater sweatshirt tank top fat lady little boy where is Jessie? Now he’s raising his voice. People are staring. Jessica! Someone from the shoe counter comes over to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. Jessica! Someone pages the bowling alley but Rex is already out the front doors, into the warm late afternoon, when they say Jessie’s name over the intercom. He runs wildly across the parking lot, silent, only the sound of his breath. He’s stopped calling because he doesn’t really believe she’s out here, doesn’t really believe she isn’t fine somewhere in there in the bowling alley, and he runs around the back through the cars and scans everywhere for a spot of kelly green. Is that green? An empty dirt lot behind the Burger King He runs for it. Green. He swats at the huge tropical flowers and palm leaves in his way and weaves amongst the lopsided shacks and the teenaged boys on their mopeds. He runs past a woman pulling her house on a dolly. It’s a sheet metal and scrap-wood box, maybe five feet by five feet. The woman is fifty, seventy, ninety years old. By the looks of her bent back, she’s been moving the house through the night. Pulling slowly, laboriously. As if the shack were disproportionately heavy. Inside it, Rex knows, is a man in a beige leather LazyBoy, drinking a six-dollar bottle of beer and watching porn on the Boones’ new flatscreen TV: girl on girl action. The lorry is tied with string and twine to the bent woman’s shoulders, and the weight of it all pulls her arms and shoulders backward as if the ruined shack and the invisible man inside it were nailed to the blades of her shoulders, riveted to her back. Rex reaches into the shack through an open window, searching with his hand for a napkin or a rag, something to soak up this coffee. He uses the stiff paper towels in the airport men’s room, and checks his watch. Two pm. Christ. It feels like the middle of the night. Still plenty of time to catch the ferry to Batam and check in at the fabrication yard, at the engineering offices. Check out the buoyancy platforms, super-huge jungle gyms made of pipe. But these are not toys. Not for kids. This is serious stuff. Get out of here Jessie. I’m trying to work. Can you turn off that music? Stop running around the house? Can you shut of the TV? God damn can I get some fucking quiet around here? Can’t a man do some work in his own goddamned house?

And there she is, laid flat by one of the huge cement structures securing a lamp post. Her green t-shirt, her jean skirt, her pink slip-on Keds. A hundred yards away. And in those hundred yards he’s running and he knows that she is dead but does not think how, only that she is certainly dead because that is how these stories go. Please, please let her be dead.

The girl on the mattress cries out as he reaches for her hand, just when the humming was making her relax. The huge safety glasses slip on her small head and he takes them away and keeps humming but it’s unconvincing, dashing through the snow, his hand close to her face, in a one-horse-open-sleigh, he just wants to, o’er the fields we go, brush the hair back off her forehead, laughing all the way. God her skin bells on bob tails ring so soft making spirits bright the girl is crying loud now and the man outside bangs on the door to warn her oh what fun to laugh and sing and the girl shrieks and curls up in a ball in the corner, and Rex folds his own hands in a knot in his lap, at the cold metal seatbelt buckle, and the airplane comes down through a curtain of rain.

Outside on the runway, in a bright knot of ponytails and tennis shoes, college girls shake posters of dead fish and plastic trash—a bottle of Tide, a Barbie Doll, a yellow bread bag—all rotting in a thick foamy rime along the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Inside the plane, that man is on top of his daughter in the aisle, and all the men watch. They stand hunched in a hot group in their hard hats and safety goggles inside one of the buildings, complete with S-Lay barge and platform already built to five hundred feet, inside. "Larger versions of the same platform, millions of pounds," Rex explains, "are already floating out at sea, systematically lowering welded pipe to the ocean bottom. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of man hours."

At the hotel after work Rex takes a hot shower, washes the salt and sweat and grime from his hair and wraps up his old body in a white towel. He sits on the edge of the bed looking at the telephone, then picks it up and dials the long chain of numbers to Houston.

"Rex please. Leave us alone."

"No, Helen, you have to talk to me. Will somebody please, please, please talk to me?"

"Go do your job, Rex. You’re right where you belong."

Outside the taxi window on the way from the hotel to the pub whole families are ratcheted to single mopeds. Greasy little fires in the dirt yards beside the moveable homes. Children running around naked, or barely clothed, and covered in mud. Downtown, Rex walks toward the highest concentration of light and finds the place where all the software engineers and welding engineers are gathered for the evening. Tourists sing Karaoke at one end of the pub and Rex is grateful for the noise. He orders two beers at once, and leans back in the stiff wooden chair.

He sits there a long time, watching and listening to the young guys sing pop music out of tune. A little girl in a bright pink dress takes the stage dancing. She lifts her dress over her head, flashing her kelly green underwear, and the men go wild. Rex turns his back because he doesn’t want to see her small brown legs or her little brown belly or her sweet round knees or anything, he doesn’t want to see anything. In the front corner of the place sits a scowling woman with dark hair tangled and sprayed in a spidery halo around her head, her face thick with bright make-up. Men come into the bar in safety glasses, order drinks, and walk over to the woman, who leads them one at a time outside to the parking lot behind the Burger King.

Rex finishes his fifth beer. "What’s that business over there?" he asks Jack.

"Most expensive fuck in town. Ten-year-old virgin. Something like eighty bucks and she’s all yours."

Rex Boone doesn’t want to find these patterns in the world around him, least of all here, at work, but there it is, coral like a small creamy gray brain—a child’s brain—set perfectly still on the pilings along the coast inside the fabrication yard. He stops and touches his fingertips to his forehead. It’s a steamy late afternoon, and his face and arms and throat shine with a fine patina of sweat and dirt and salt spray. Twenty-six hours from Houston to Batam then straight to the engineering office, and when finally he steps out on the beach to stretch his legs, he sees nothing but this whitewashed ruin, this artificial shoreline of dredged up coral and bones of fishes. And this quiet little brain. A deep blue cleft between its two wrinkled hemispheres. Desiccated kelp strewn like green-black hair ribbons across the broken bits of shell.

He sits on a ten-foot length of rust-colored pipe in the sand, next to Jessie, who watches him coyly and systematically removes her clothes: slips her feet out of her bloody Keds, peels off her socks, unsnaps her little bitty jean skirt. The sea is the color of blue milk. Some of the sheds are painted bright green, or yellow. Otherwise it looks a lot like Houston. The stacks of forty-foot lengths pipe; the huge sheet metal bays in which the carbon steel pipe is fabricated; the facility where offshore platforms are fabricated; the giant blue box that covers completed modules for transport; the low white buildings inside which carbon steel pipe spools are fabricated; the giant cranes that assemble the tubulars, piece by piece, into buoyancy tanks; the tubular storage station; the stabbing station.

Here comes Jack, swinging his free arm and drinking coffee. He stands beside the pipe, looks over his head at Jessie, naked on the cold carbon steel, and winks at Rex. "Hey Boone, looks like you’re getting ready to lay some pipe."

"Leave us alone," Rex says from the dirt floor to the man hollering outside the flimsy sheet metal door. The man’s movement stops, and it is quiet save the little girl’s shaking breath.

Her eyes are open, fluttering. Her chest inside the green t-shirt is rising and falling. She looks up at him, she says nothing, she doesn’t recognize him, won’t. He touches her face, oh Christ, and she flinches. She jerks her wrecked and bleeding body away from him. Alive, he thinks. She’s alive. He touches her shoulder just. A little.

Sitting on the mattress, now. He just wants to hold her hand, that’s all. He puts his hand flat on her little belly and god, god, god, and she does not flinch, she does not move at all.

The software engineer backs away from the welding equipment and Rex, without a helmet, steps up to the weld joint. Some of the men step up closer to get a better view.

"When I do this next part," Rex says, "I’m joining the two pipes together sort of down hill. See that?" The men watch. "This way," Rex says, gripping the welding torch in his fist, "I can hit it really hot and fast."

Bonnie Nadzam is currently writing short stories and a novel.

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