Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 1 • Spring 2002 • Fiction

Mild Steel

a novel excerpt

Sara McAulay


It had been a crazy morning -- five fountains, a multi-tier birdbath, 13 squirrels, nine of those damn little pissing cupids and a giraffe to be packed for pick-up by one-thirty. Hector was out sick and Joel had left at 10, making like Mr. BusinessOwner (which, to be fair, is what he is), showing a contingent of Minnesota landscape architects around San Francisco -- as if there's something wrong with Oakland for christsake. That left Miguel and me to get everything crated and popcorned, and kiss it all goodbye when UPS arrived. And then Miguel's dog had one of his tail-chasing fits and knocked over a table where I'd spread a bunch of solvent-washed bicycle sprockets to dry, and the chunk of slag I threw at him to make him stop spinning hit a bottle on the workbench instead. Glass everywhere; it was like a bad Saturday morning cartoon.

I sent Miguel to the welding supply, which was the same as giving him the rest of the afternoon off because he has a girlfriend in that neighborhood. By the time I finished sweeping up glass and had rewashed the bike sprockets -- this time next week they'd be part of a coffee table or floor lamp, four hundred bucks in our showroom; six-fifty in a shop on 4th Street in Berkeley -- it was almost three. The day had been typical mid-November, cold and damp, threatening rain at the end of a cold gray week, but now the clouds were breaking up a little. Watery sunlight slanted in through the door of the shop and lay like a thin yellowish rug on the asphalt floor. I got my sandwich and Coke from the fridge in the office and sat in the doorway while I ate, and smoked one of my week's allotment of cigarettes. And then, because it had been too long since I'd seen the sun and it felt warm as a hand on my face, and because the afternoon's work was catalog-order fountains and garden statuary that my assistant ought to be doing except that my assistant had taken a hike more than a month ago and still hadn't been replaced, I decided to have tomorrow's smoke today. So I lit up and sank into the blue canvas chair with my name, LIZA, in peeling white letters across the back. Joel's idea. He's got a chair too, a red one. Does it say JOEL? No, it does not. It says BOSS, and his letters are gold, not white. Peeling worse than mine, though. I take some comfort in that, and help the cause along with a fingernail every now and again.

Eyes closed, head back, sun on my face, I took little light sips of my coffin nail to make it last, figuring carcinoma and pleasure endorphins ought to cancel each other out up to a point. Within minutes I'd entered that freeform freefall freewheel state between dream and consciousness where nothing is real and everything is real and all things are possible. When the car pulled into the lot I didn't move, I just incorporated the sound of the engine, and the door slamming and then slamming again, into the warmth and comfort and cigarette taste where I'd been drifting. Footsteps approached, light and quick. I opened one eye. With the light behind her the woman was just a silhouette. "Karinne?" I said, and bolted up out of the chair.

Not Karinne. No resemblance at all, except the age was more or less right. This one had decided champagne blond bouff might be a good idea. It wasn't. I settled back into my chair.

"I'm looking for Ricky D Coghlin," she said.


"Coghlin. Ricky D. Do you know him?" She approached, tipping along gingerly in cheap new cowboy boots that weren't such a hot idea either, and held out a snapshot: youngish dark-haired deadhead looking guy in tie-dye and bells and drooping Fu Manchu 'stache, cradling a tenor sax in one arm. Blond bimbo-hippie chick at his side; both of them squinting into the sun, noses and chins casting stark black shadows. The woman looked vaguely familiar; the man, no.

"Sorry," I said.

"I have it from a reliable source," the woman said, and then stopped. She was younger than I'd thought at first; the bimbo-hippie in the picture all grown up, with a bad bleach job now and a lot more miles on the odometer of course and etched into her face -- and none of the sweet, dumb happiness in her eyes that, as I looked again, I could see behind the squint in the photo. In the flesh. Her eyes were an extraordinary lilac color, or violet. Probably contacts, but the effect was, well, effective. She swallowed hard, blinked, shook herself a little; holding it all together, doing an okay job so far but it was surface tension, like the skin that holds water in a glass even when you fill it past the rim. One drop too many and you've got a mess on your hands for sure.

"I have it from a reliable source," she said again -- I flashed on a sad little picture of my visitor in front of a mirror in the bathroom of some cheap motel, trying out her lines, trying out the wide violet stare, the barely-controlled tremor of lower lip -- "I have it from a very reliable source that Ricky D's been working here, in this shop," glancing down at a little spiral notepad I hadn't even noticed she was carrying: "Creative Metal Solutions."

"That's us." Makers of quality items in wrought iron, steel, and non-ferrous metals. Fountains and entryways our specialty. Joel's been in business right here in Oakland since Christ hammered nails, just about. Some days it feels like I've been here almost as long, and in fact I'm coming up eighteen years. The catalog items are all Joel's design. Me, I do the custom stuff: big, artsy iron gates for software tycoons' ranches in Marin, an entrance archway for Towhee Vineyards, right on the road to St. Helena. I do window grilles that look like spiderwebs (spider available as an extra) and security shutters in the shape of hands with interlaced fingers. In other words, I'm the Creative in Creative Metals. Folk come into the shop with a sketch or just an idea, and I sit down with them and they talk and I listen and then they go away and I get my torches and start cutting steel. You can see my stuff all over: San Francisco, here in Oakland of course, and Berkeley; Marin, Santa Cruz, LA. I've got a sideline too, work I do in my shop at home. If I wanted to pack up my gear and move to New York or LA, I could make a go of it.

But I'm not leaving Oakland. I've got live-work space where the rent hasn't been raised in years, and neighbors with big dogs that make it almost safe to walk from the bus home at night when my bike's on the fritz. It's on the fritz a lot, and a sensible woman would probably get rid of it. But it's a museum piece, a '55 Vincent Black Lightning, and trying to keep it halfway healthy is one way of keeping myself halfway sane. But mainly I stay here because of the kids. My girls, Toby and Cass. If I left this area, they wouldn't know where to find me.

"My reliable source says he's worked here for more than three years," the woman was saying. I wanted her out of the shop before she started to cry or tell me her sad story or probably both. But when she held out the snapshot again my hand reached out on autopilot, and my heart sank. I was going to be pulled into this, I could feel it. And sure enough when I studied the man's face thought I could see similarities. Lard him up by 40 or 50 pounds, gray up and thin out his hair and droop his jowls a bit, crack a few of his teeth and it was a definite possible. The name was wrong, but with guys like Denis, names don't mean a hell of a lot.

"No Ricky here," I said anyway. "Just Joel, he owns the place, and Liza, that's me, and Hector and Miguel who do stocking and deliveries, stuff like that. And Denis. He's my assistant, only nobody's seen him since the end of September so we figure he quit."

"Denis," said the woman, and it hurt my heart the way her face lit up. "That's the D in Ricky D. I know it's him! Take a closer look."

I'd seen enough. "Could be, I guess. But like I said, he's gone missing." I wanted to leave it at that. Didn't want to tell her the guy she'd been looking for, the one in the picture, didn't exist anymore, even if he hadn't literally disappeared. I figured she hadn't seen him in years, so the image in her mind still matched the one in the photo. A guy in his 30s at most, not handsome exactly but even I could see he had a kind of rogue sax-player's charm. I didn't know how old Denis was; hadn't given it any real thought. "An old guy," is how I characterized him to myself, a comment more on general spirit and condition than on actual years. Now I asked myself could he be, say, my age? Fifty-three? Even a few years younger? And I supposed he could.

"You have no idea," the woman said, "how long, how hard, I've been searching for him. I've been following leads, driving all over the place, but until now none of them panned out." She leaned toward me, smiling, not in an obvious way, more like practiced and calculating, eyelids demurely lowered and all that, and her hand settled lightly on my wrist. "You're my best chance so far. I can't tell you how glad I am I found you." One finger stroking gently: back and forth, back and forth.

"Sorry I can't help you." It didn't make sense. She looked straight as a string to me. But I was handy and maybe this was the only way she could think of getting whatever information she thought I was holding back. She moved closer; even through my thick wool shirt I could feel her breast against my arm.

Thoughts jumbled around in my mind. Foremost among them: Damn, who'd have believed old Denis would inspire this kind of interest in anyone? And: Okay, lady, what's the real story here?

And (go on, admit it): No bra!

This late in the day it wasn't likely a customer would come looking for me personally, and even if they did ... hey, I'm an artist, I don't punch time clocks. Anyone wants to see me, they know to call first and make sure I'm available. "Let's get a cup of coffee," I suggested to my visitor, and walked her out of the shop.

Besides one of the company's trucks and my Vincent, there was just one vehicle in the lot, the saddest Dodge Dart you ever saw in your life. Metallic purple drive-thru paint job that no doubt looked like shit the day it was done, which had to be five years in the distant past at least. Powdery and flaking now, patches of unprimed metal showing through. The windows darkened with that press-on film like smoked Saran Wrap, flaking too, and bubbling away from the glass. It was pitiful. Jersey plates to round out the picture.

It would have been funny if it wasn't so pathetic. It made me feel sad and tender toward her, standing there in her skimpy little blue undershirt-looking ribbed cotton sweater like the teenage girls were all wearing that fall, and those ridiculous pointy-toed boots. You had to have had a shit life to end up driving a car like that all the way from New Jersey to California looking for a man who was going to turn out -- assuming you could find him at all -- to be an all-world disappointment. You had to be an all-world disappointment to yourself to end up driving that car anywhere, let alone such a distance, and it seemed to me that on some level she understood that, and knew that old Ricky D -- assuming she could find him -- was going to be the guy who put the L in Loser. The fact that she had kept on pushing, had made the drive and followed those leads she'd paid for with tit on the arm or a good deal more ... all that made me feel sadder and tenderer still.

Stupid, too, of course.

"There's a place we can walk to," I said, "serves fair coffee and won't be crowded. It's ordinary coffee, though. You want cappuccino or chai, any of that designer stuff, we'll have to take your car. Unless" -- well hey, why not? -- "you want a ride on my bike."

"You have a motorcycle?"

Ordinarily I'd have said something like Nah, I plan to carry you on the handlebars of my balloon-tire one-speed Schwinn. But she had one of those smiles that lit up her eyes and just barely touched the corners of her mouth, and she had a dimple, just one, on the left side. Don't do this, I told myself, not meaning the Vincent at all, though that's where the focus fell: Don't take this crazy straight woman for a ride. Don't let her put her arms around you and press her breasts into your back, as she will do as surely as god, little green apples and all the rest. Don't, that's do not do it. But the offer had been made and accepted. As misfortune would have it there was even a spare helmet in the shop, because you never know. I made her put it on. She said, "Ricky D had a Harley. Almost killed himself on it once. I made him sell it."

No wonder he's gone, I managed not to say.


Where we were headed was Musto's, a hole in the wall behind an industrial awning company where the coffee is good and the pastries have to be weighted down with stones, except for the ones so drenched with honey that you want to rub them on someone. It's quiet, too, that time of day, with a couple of booths in the back, both empty. I sat the woman down, got her a double cap and a piece of halvah and myself the same, and slid into the booth across from her. "Okay, what's the story?"

"I don't know where to begin," she said.

"You could start with your name."

"Patty. Patricia. Patty Coghlin. I'm Ricky D Coghlin's wife." Another photo had appeared on the table between us. Half a photo, maybe two-thirds, neatly torn. The same man and woman, and two little blond boys. "These are our sons. Dicky and Davey; they're twins. That was their fourth birthday." She tapped the picture with a finger; her nails, freshly painted the color of plums, were bitten to the quick. "They're thirteen now, really good kids, but boys need their father, don't you agree?" Things were changing at school, she went on before I could answer, and in the neighborhood. "Bad influences. Boys need male role models. It's important. Books have been written about it."

"I have girls, myself." My voice sounded distant and thin, as if I were listening to myself in a dream. Then I noticed something odd. One of the boys in the picture seemed to have an extra leg, complete with sandaled foot. That's really what it looked like at first, but then I could see that someone else had been in the picture -- another child, it looked like, but taller, longer-legged. I stared at the leg and the sandal -- a girl's white sandal with an ankle strap -- and I saw how straight the torn edge was, how carefully it ran along the man's right shoulder, and the nearest boy's. "Who's the missing kid?"

"The what?" Patty Coghlin shot me a startled look. "Oh, goodness! I don't remember." She gave a sharp little laugh. "A neighbor child. Someone we knew in Michigan -- I may have given part of the picture to her mother when we moved away. Maybe that's why it's torn." She laughed again, and then her face hardened and she got very interested in the packets of sugar and Sweet & Low in the little basket by the napkin dispenser. "Funny, I don't even remember her name."

Liar, I thought, and then I thought: Leave it alone. But the spirit of perversity must have been riding me that day. "Jeannie," I suggested. "Janie, Sally, Sue ...?"

"Patricia." Patty stabbed her halvah like she held it personally responsible for all the grief and meanness and disappointment she'd ever seen in her life. "She had the same name as me. Isn't that just a hoot?" Snipping off the end of the word like it was a thread and she was all through sewing, forever amen.

A hoot and a half, I thought. Dear lord. "So," I said, "somebody told you your husband -- your ex? -- was working out here, and if it really is him you're going to try to get him to pay child support. Is that it?"

That was for starters. "My boys are starting to run with a bad crowd," Patty said, and then continued in a rush: "Peer pressure, you know? Children are so susceptible to peer pressure at that age. They're getting too much for me to handle. They need their father. They need a firm hand." I tried to imagine old Denis applying a firm hand to anything that wasn't a cutting torch or a bottle of screw-top red. Couldn't do it. Not the Denis I knew. Even if he really was this woman's husband or ex, the sax playing father of her sons. Even if. Too much time had passed. Too many dead soldiers, too many miles with no destination except the nearest CutCost Liquors.

One afternoon when things were slow at the shop and Denis and I were talking, he told me he'd been married once, and had kids. He hadn't seen them in years, he said; wouldn't want them to see him the way he was now. "Maybe one day when I clean up my act I'll look them up," he'd said, and I'd said sure, just as if I believed him.

"I just know if we could be a family again everything would be okay," Patty went on. "I mean, I know I made mistakes, I shouldn't have let him go, I should have started looking for him sooner, but I had a chemical imbalance in my blood, I wasn't thinking clearly you know, and then I met someone..." She laughed, and her violet eyes brushed my face like fingertips. "Do you know what that's like?"

Like the current in the river that grabs you by the ankles and yanks you off your feet, half a mile downstream before you come up for air and your life's irrevocably changed? I shivered. "Who told you your husband was working at Creative Metals?"

She shrugged. "I hired somebody. Ricky D's from San Diego, originally, and I hired somebody from there. After that, one lead led to another, I guess, just like on TV."

She hadn't struck me as the sort of person who'd hire a detective. I was impressed, to tell the truth. I'd thought about it myself, after Karinne left, but in the way you think one day you'll spend a whole month in Paris, or go back to college and get a degree in something. Pipe-dreaming. I'd hire a private eye, maybe a good-looking little dyke like out of one of those lesbian mysteries Karinne was always reading, and she'd sleuth around and find the kids and she and I would fall in lust and have a torrid affair and Karinne would be insanely jealous and realize that she never should have dumped me even if I was acting like a crazy woman at the time, and she certainly shouldn't have kept me from having any contact with Toby and Cass.

"The boys need their father." Good boys at heart, but lately things had changed, she told me again and again. Peer pressure, neighborhood on the slide and she couldn't handle it alone anymore. There was no one else in the picture. "Even if he doesn't want me back as, you know, a wife" -- she lowered her eyes and I'd swear she blushed -- "he needs to be in their lives."

"Where are they now?"

Her eyelids flickered; the lovely violet gaze slid over my face and away. "Oh," brightly, "they're staying with friends."

Up to that point I'd been with her. My own life resonated: the messy break-up with Karinne; she and the girls just vanishing in the night.

I'd looked for them everywhere -- the town where she'd grown up, all the places we'd visited together, her parents' retirement village by the golf course. Made such a pest of myself there that they got a restraining order against me. I put out feelers, made phone calls, placed ads in the papers, queer and mainstream both. I really didn't think she could hide from me, keep the girls from me, for long, but months and then years passed and I still came up empty. A smart woman would have hired a detective, but I didn't. That put Patty Coghlin one up on me.

But I didn't like the way she'd said her boys were staying with friends. I'd thought friends were the problem. Peer pressure and all. Ah well, I thought. It was probably the best she could do.

She was still talking. Didn't want the cops involved if she could help it, but Ricky-Denis was a deadbeat dad, not a cent in child support all those years, and she'd had her own troubles with those chemicals and all, and (I gathered) more lousy guys in her life than one.

"Still, he's not the worst," she said. "Not by a long shot. He can be sweet. A diamond in the rough, you know? I didn't appreciate him when I had him, isn't that always the way? Didn't know when I was well off." She shook her head. "The twins need a firm hand, a man's hand," she told me, leaning across the table, her hand touching mine. "I've got to find him."

I picked up my coffee cup. It was empty but I put it to my lips anyway. Sweet was a side of Denis I'd never seen, couldn't even imagine. I shook my head too: memory was kind. "Like I said. No clue where he might be."

It was after five o'clock by that time, the Early Bird Special crowd starting to drift in. Another few minutes and I was either going to have to suggest a drink and maybe dinner or else be ready to say yes or no if she did. I leaned back in the booth and rubbed my eyes. "Joel -- that's the guy that owns the business -- tried calling him, three or four times. One afternoon I even rode out to where he lives. Nobody'd seen him -- at least that's what they said. His landlady said he was paid up through the end of the month and it was none of her business if some of his stuff was gone." I shrugged. "As for the cops. What would be the point? He's a drifter, and he drifted. It happens."

In fact it had happened before, with Denis, three or four times in the years he'd worked for us. He'd get drunk and wander off, come weaving back in a day or a week or two or three all sorry and sheepish with his money gone and maybe his shoes, hair matted like the back end of a stray collie and a stink coming off him that you could just about see. A worry the first few times and then just an inconvenience -- people calling up about their wrought iron gate or the garden fountain with the peeing cupid they'd ordered and paid for. Denis was our cupid guy. Not that I can't do them but he's got a real flair, He seemed to actually like them, while it's all I can do to keep from putting the feet on the legs backwards out of pure boredom, contempt and meanness, and one time I did slip a condom on a little blue-patinaed iron prick before I packed our boy in styrofoam popcorn and shipped him off to Missouri.

"I'm afraid I haven't been much help," I said. "But I don't know where Denis is. Joel doesn't know where he is, nobody does. I wish he'd come back because there's a shitload of work piled up, and I don't want to have to do it, and I don't really want to give his job to somebody else because he's good at what he does, but pretty soon I'm going to have to." I pulled a paper napkin from the holder and a pencil from the pocket of my shirt. "Here's his phone number. It's a bar near where he lives; they take his messages. And here's his address. Maybe you'll have better luck."

She gave me her number as well. Staying at a motel near the airport, be there through the weekend anyway. "If you hear anything...?"

"I'll call." On one thing I definitely agreed with her: all other things being equal, kids do better with two parents. "Now I better run you back to your car."

Which I did, without further conversation or incident. And then I headed home. It had begun to rain.


My live-work is a big Quonset-hut-like building of corrugated steel, an oven in the summer and cold as Karinne's icy heart in December and January. It's one of eight in a cluster at the end of a pot-holed street lined with self-storage places, warehouses, the Big One Bait & Tackle, Chatty's Ribs (empty, burned out -- Arson-R-Us, the rumor is), and a Full Gospel church. There's no view at all of the bay, but I'm close enough to smell the mudflats at low tide.

Once this was an active little artists and artisans' enclave, the pet of a rich old guy who made millions in banned-in-the-USA herbicides with one hand and patronized the arts with the other. The rent was cheap when I moved in, and it's hardly increased in all these years. However there have been shall we say some changes in the 'hood, none for the better. People began to keep their eyes open for other space and two years ago after Omar Davies got shot in broad daylight, washing his car, the exodus began in earnest.

Now despite the low rent there isn't much of the original community left. My closest neighbors today are an auto body shop, a sign painter, an upholsterer; two boarded-up buildings at the end of my block are squats. I know it's only a matter of time before old Mr. Swift dies, and his kids aren't going to hold the property any longer than it takes to sign the necessary papers. Forget the funky old buildings; the land is worth a fortune. Everything here is; every marshy landfill acre ready to liquefy and swallow whatever's built on it when the Big One (earthquake, not bait shop) hits -- a fortune. Two or three fortunes. I don't blame the Swift "kids" (my age and older, but that's what the old man calls them) for wanting to unload. I would myself. And I don't blame my friends who have moved their studios and their living quarters elsewhere. I would myself, would have long ago, except that when Cass and Toby come looking for me, this is where they'll come first. This was their home for 10 years, and I want to be right here to greet them when they arrive.

I put the Vincent away, fed my cats, glanced at my mail -- bills, bills, bills, bills -- checked messages on the phone machine. Nothing from Norma, the woman I'd been seeing for the past six months or so. She was visiting family in North Carolina and I was trying to decide if I missed her -- if maybe she was someone I was going to care about. Couldn't decide; not a good sign.

My shop is one big room roughly 20 by 30, partitioned off from my living area. It's windowless on the long sides but with four big skylights that I installed myself, and a hangar door on the end that I usually keep open when I'm working, even in winter. I put in the ventilation system myself, too, and when the exhaust blowers are on high you want to keep a firm hold on any small pets or visiting children. I don't like breathing fumes.

For me living alone, saying hello to my shop in the evening is my real homecoming every night: my tools on the wall, extension cords coiled, everything in its place. Hello, angle grinder, hello SawzAll. Welding machines, tanks and hoses on their carts, clipped to rings set into the walls so if the ground shakes a bit they won't go walking: hello hello, how was your day? Welding table and two workbenches with grinders and vices, pipe bender and table saw, everything just the way I like it. Hello, I missed you. Sheet metal racked according to gauge, rods according to size. With the fans turned off, the whole room smells of the memory of fire.

And it's clean. Karinne used to say you could eat off the floor, which I wouldn't advise, and that I could find every single thing in it blindfolded, which isn't far from the truth. Crossing from the doorway I switched on the work lights. Delfina and Jane awaited me: two sets of curves and angles, steel and brass rods swooping to suggest hip and leg and breast. The heads, blank 12-gauge ovals, bent toward each other. Faces would come later.

Tonight I focused on the gesture of Jane's shoulder and right arm as she leaned into Delfina, fingers tangled in her steel-wire hair. It was a strong movement that I wanted to suggest, a thrust that pushed off with the left foot and carried through hip and spine to the right shoulder, arm and hand, the force of it rocking Delfina, forcing her head back and to the side. I could see the expression I would give Delfina, blending excitement, pleasure and pain. But that was for another time. Tonight, the arm, the muscular thrust. My ladies looked decorous, as if they were waltzing -- not what I wanted at all.

Progress was slow, and at 10:30 I packed it in. Heated a can of soup and ate it. Read my email. Thought about calling Norma, but it was past two a.m. in North Carolina by that time. Norma was a nice woman. Maybe I could come to care about her, in time. But lying in bed later, staring at the tube with the cats curled against my hip, it wasn't Norma I found myself thinking about, it was Patty Coghlin. Looking for poor old Denis the Wandering Wino Welder, specialist in cast-iron pissing cherubs, to be a father to her boys.

Sara McAulay grew up in Virginia but has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for most of her adult life. She is the author of three novels and numerous works of short fiction and non-fiction, and has received fellowships for her prose from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Since 1984 she has taught writing and literature at California State University Hayward and is looking forward to semi-retirement. In recent years, she finds herself drawn strongly back to her early loves: graphic arts and sculpture. She edits the online literary journal Tattoo Highway for which she also does most of the graphic design. When not writing, reading manuscripts or creating computer art, she can often be found hanging around salvage yards looking for scrap steel to weld. All things considered, she and her partner would just as soon travel as breathe.

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