by Jason Brady Molohon
I can smell locusts cooking in the hard sun, their bodies baked and brittle on the rusted car hoods that simmer in the Yard. Weeds are everywhere now, splashes of fresh green tares that waver in the heat like a mirage. Vacant insect husks crack under my feet as I walk beside the concrete dividers that mark the edge of our property.
The Yard is a gulag unless my stepdad is crushing— John rents the Granutech Big MAC at nearly a grand a day and doesn’t have time to order me around. Otherwise, a trip to the Yard means I’ll have to scratch at the trails that bend through the hot shadows of salvage piles, clearing out nails and screws and shrapnel that might stab the Loader’s tires. It’s madness. I hunch ankle deep in the sugarsand veins of the Yard all day long while the sun punishes the Texas dust and ignites the junk heaps like aluminum pyres. Only the snort of John’s Chevy and the red-rimmed clouds of sunset summon me back again, ghost-grey and crusted with dirt. My snot is black and gritty for days.
Today the Yard is chained shut by heavy links of steel sticky and sweet with WD-40. I walk beneath pillars of junk stacked end over end, vast and trunkless legs of iron branded by the signets of the Rust Belt. A few Chevelles sit on blocks beside a Mustang swallowed by twists of thorns. Dozens of anonymous trucks, vans and compact cars languish in various stages of cannibalism. I poke through their broken windows and climb over moldering seats split like spoiled fruit by the dry heat, scrounging for quarters in the abandoned ashtrays. I pry open the dented trunk of a Cadillac and fumble in the fiberglass tomb for cigarettes or maybe even the slick pages of a porno mag.
Though we only bought the Yard a few years ago, the salvage piles are relics of the Cold War. For decades the towns surrounding Corpus Christi have been dragging their damaged goods down Kidron Road and dumping them here before daybreak like ruined junkies. Stripped of their doors, the empty sockets greet me in the morning when my stepdad unlocks the Yard, iron oxide scabs bright screams of orange under the sterile headlights. When the sun rises, the Loader will rumble across the Yard and drag the remains to the contempt of the junk piles to wait for today—Crushing Day.
This is how car crushing works:
First, we tag the remains for dissection. That’s my job. I lug cans of cadmium red spraypaint all over the Yard, tracing crude Xs on hoods and side panels while the fumes fill my nostrils like chemical sugar. My hands are stained crimson for a week no matter how hard I scrub them. Once that’s done, we take inventory of all the marked vehicles. I scribble furiously on a clipboard while John bellows out the year, make and model of each machine. Sometimes the hulks of fatal highway collisions are so ravaged that neither of us can tell what they are anymore so I scramble across front seats tacky with dried blood to look for VIN numbers or crumpled registration slips.
Next, the marked cars are stripped of all their working parts. John hews out salvage crews from the stricken day-labor crowds that gather by the railroad tracks and sets them to work with wrenches, screwdrivers, and blowtorches. A huge number of parts turn a profit—body panels, carburetors, wheels and tires, suspension parts and entire engines can all be refurbished and sold. When everything of value has been hauled away, the batteries are pulled out and the chemicals are drained from the cooling and air- conditioning systems into whatever is lying around. We shadow the grifters without fail every day and catalogue everything that’s pulled with clinical precision.
Last night John laid the title to the house down as a deposit at American Rental in Austin and drove the Crusher down I-37 and into the middle of the Yard. He woke me up this morning while the stars still pinpricked the sky and we flew down the road in the Chevy and I watched the blue-black countryside blur outside the window, my ears full of wind and engine noise while I breathed in the scent of coffee and diesel mixed with the Navajo Sunset that bloomed in the dark. He started loading the cars onto the crushing bed before the rays of dawn burnt off the scant summer fog, activating the hydraulics by remote and smashing the vehicles as flat as possible. Baler crushers like the Granutech can reduce an automobile to a brick of crushed metal smaller than me. In a few days, flatbed trucks will flock to the Yard and gorge themselves on pyramids of steel bricks, sending pillars of dust billowing into the air as they flee toward incinerators all over East Texas.
The machinery vomits thick clouds of smoke that shroud the skies above the aisles of salvage like sackcloth. Vultures loop lazily in the distance, haloing the empty retention pond at the rearmost part of the junkyard. I scale a hill of broken asphalt to get a closer look.
John was drunk the first time I found them. He took a deep drag of a Marlboro, smiled and leaned back in the office chair as he pronounced the words like an exotic curse. When the salvage crews had drained the radiators the year before, they’d left buckets of coolant in the back of the Yard to ferment in the heat. Feral cats had stiffened in droves. I remember my eyes had been tearstained and I’d sniffled as the man explained that the little bastards just couldn’t help themselves.
Sweet as honey going in, it kills them before sundown every time.
I’m beyond crying now and instead play with the bodies, poking them with sticks, looking for survivors. They stare at me with glass eyes, their mouths parted and sticky and green from the chemical poisoning. A few feline zombies stagger in the tall grass, nearly comatose as their livers begin to metabolize the toxins that will soon cause kidney failure. I turn away.
The flagpole stands sentry in the Yard. A cement power pole easily seventy feet high, John had lifted it into place with a come-along and the Loader three years back when he bought the business. The flag was massive and obscene and we’d gotten it cheap at a used-car lot fire sale. I step through a minefield of discarded rims and hubcaps until I reach the pole’s thick, concrete base and wrap my fists around the galvanized rebar that skewer the sides and serve as handholds. I pull myself up to the zenith the way I’ve seen the utility workers do. The silk banner caresses the nape of my neck and I can see fresh thunderheads pulsing and bruised in the distance.
On the shore dimly seen thro' the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
I watch the Crusher gnaw beneath me, the Loader swerving between the deserted parts that litter the ground like chaff on a threshing floor. An automobile squeals between the presses— its windows burst like ripe grapes under the pressure and gasoline sloshes onto the ground in a frothy puddle. The wind picks up suddenly, whipping my hair against my face as my eyes scan the land and drink in the sight of my inheritance.
Literature is often said to be a reflection of the society from which it is born, but I believe such a view relegates writers to the role of passive observers chronicling the zeitgeist’s turning. Rather than simply holding a mirror up to the world we live in, I feel we are more akin to prisms through which the world is refracted, our tales unique simulacra colored by our own experiences, perceptions and beliefs. We are not simple messengers—we are woven into the message itself.
I believe my country is dying. “Crushing Day” is my attempt to come to terms with that creatively, a channeled image of society that dances alongside a thousand others. I played with a few perspectives until I found one I liked, originally writing it in third-person omniscient until I settled upon first-person. I felt this allowed me to encapsulate my interpretation of an author’s role (refraction, not reflection) within the narration while preserving the character’s voice amidst the strong imagery. As the narrator wanders the ruined vehicles, the imagery entwines the intentionally garish symbol of the flag with economic and moral decline as well as biblical destruction. The final climb above the fray emblazons my perception of America’s fall in the mind of the reader as we watch the machinery grind and together wait for blood a horse’s bridle high.
Jason Brady Molohon is a freelance writer whose writing has appeared in Callaloo. He currently lives near Nashville, Tennessee and is working on his first novel as well as several other short stories.