The Brave, the Bold, the Battered – By Daniel W. Davis
He wasn’t surprised that it still stood. There was no reason the building shouldn’t have been condemned and destroyed—all the windows were busted, the brick walls were crumbling, the doors were dented or knocked off their hinges. The floors inside were probably full of holes. Any wood remaining had to be rotted through by now. The building had stood empty for twenty years and looked it.
Yet he’d known it would still be there. He had seen it in his dream just last month, not as it stood now but as it had stood in his childhood, regal and bustling with life. Brown’s Shoe Company, the heart of Coles County, the single largest employer in all of Central Illinois. There had been three separate factories in the area, but this one had been the backbone of it all. And Keating’s grandfather had started the whole thing.
Pride. He’d felt it then and he felt it now. He hadn’t in the time between, those twenty years he spent out in the world making a name for himself in one business after another. This town had been a crutch, an anchor weighing him down. He’d fled to Chicago to escape it, then to New York, then to California. He spent a year in Brazil. He’d left Coles County, unlike his father and grandfather and every male ancestor going back four generations.
“And you’re back.”
His voice was a whisper; he didn’t want to wake the ghosts inside.
“Inside the building or inside your head?”
He’d begun talking to himself after the divorce. He didn’t hold her accountable; Patricia had been a good wife and a strong woman. It took courage for her to leave him. Love too, probably, though there hadn’t been much love in those last couple months, just a lot of arguments and yelling and whiskey bottles. Love, he’d realized, was a complex organ-ism. It could turn you traitor to your whole family, your whole legacy; it could take your heart and put it through tortures the human mind couldn’t begin to imagine. And through it all, it was the single most exquisite feeling on the face of the earth.
When Patricia had walked out on him, he’d stopped drinking. Just like that. He’d had no reason to anymore. Perhaps the voices had taken her place. Not literal voices—they were his own, and in truth there was only one, and it was always spoken aloud. He hadn’t started talking because he’d been lonely. He hadn’t started talking ’cause he’d been heartbroken. Nor had he started talking because it had helped him cope. All that was true, yes. But he’d started talking to himself because, quite simply, he had nothing better to do. His business investments were turning sour; his downward slide had started just a few months previous. He still kept at it, right up until last month when he’d had the dream. Then he’d just stopped everything and moped around his run-down apartment for the better part of three weeks. Then, when he’d realized he hadn’t slept in three days, he took his car—the only possession left he could truly call his own—and headed back east. He’d been in Seattle at the time. The trip took him a week longer than it should’ve.
All the way he thought about his divorce. No reason why—it was already a year in the past, muddy water under a decrepit bridge. But he’d thought about it just the same, and when he dreamed it was about the divorce. Not about Patricia—he rarely thought of her. He thought of the end of their marriage, and he thought of the miscarriage that didn’t have a thing to do with his lack of love for her, and he thought about the girls on the side that she never knew about, but when he thought of Patricia it was only in passing. The divorce…that was what occupied his mind on the long drive home.
“But this isn’t about divorce. It’s about…”
He didn’t know what. He stood outside Brown’s Shoe Company, staring up at the two-story behemoth building, his car parked in the gravel and broken glass a few feet away. He’d come straight here; sunset was just a few minutes away, the light had already dimmed, and inside he could see the shadows aching to be released. The building felt like home, but it wasn’t inviting. Still, where else did he have to go? His sister had moved away shortly after the company had gone bankrupt; his father had died in a nurs-ing home some years ago, his son told of the passing in a form letter sent a few weeks later. His mother had died when Keating was still a boy, back when the company was doing well and his father had been a happy man. Back before the beatings and the drink-ing and the swearing and the nights spent wondering where his old man could be.
Those days were gone, yes, but they were also there with him, in the shadow cast by the factory. He glanced to his left, to the sunlit grass, dead and yellowed, to the telephone pole that had stood there for years after it had ceased to be of use. He remembered days when he and his friends had tried to climb it, winding up with nothing to show for their efforts but splinters and spankings.
He glanced at the houses behind him; most of them looked as frail as the factory. Yet a few of them still had residents; he could see potted plants and rusted cars and a plastic playground set. He wondered what it would be like, living in the shadow of this factory, and he figured it would be a lot like the past twenty years of his own life.
He didn’t know he was going in until he stepped up to the door and pushed. The wood felt wrong beneath his hand, soft and damp. The door swung open easily enough, the hinges squeaking but not resisting. He could see the full length of the building—the rear windows let in what sunlight remained, and he found himself staring at a room the size of half a football field. In his childhood this room had housed manufacturing equipment, and cubicles had been set up to the right of the door for low-level office workers. Now the room was barren, the equipment removed when the company folded. Pieces still re-mained—the floor was strewn with rusted pieces of metal, moth-eaten fabrics. He saw a baseball resting against one wall, abandoned by whatever child had lost it. There was a shoe, a brand and style from the past couple years. Condoms, too—he nudged a few aside, wincing and smiling at the same time.
The door stayed open behind him. He wanted to turn around and swing it shut, like he’d always done as a kid, but he left it alone. It was muggy outside; it was even worse in here. There was a slight breeze that came through the door, and it toyed with his shirt, but the material was soaked in sweat and clung to his skin. He wiped some sweat from his upper lip but his hand itself was too sweaty to do any good.
He took a step inside, then another. His sneakers thudded dully against the concrete floor. He watched carefully where he stepped, avoiding not only condoms and debris but also fissures in the concrete, some big enough to trip a man. A roach scurried past and he resisted the urge to stomp on it; it had more a right to be there than he had.
Something rattled on the floor above. Buildings never stopped shifting; they, like people, were never comfortable.
Was he going up there? He was. His father’s office had been up there; all the executives had had their offices upstairs, right above their employees. Keating’s grandfather had wanted it that way. Alduous Huxtable Brown had been an exemplary man, in both name and deeds. He’d built Brown’s Shoe Company from the ground up, drawing the blue-prints for the building himself. He’d designed all the shoes, handpicked all the original employees. He’d been his own marketing department, coming up with the slogans that sold: “Shoes so light you’ll float on air!” “Walk on clouds with Brown’s Shoes!” “Fight hard. Live free. Walk comfortable.” The company had been his child, his baby, and the whole county had come to depend on him, and then his son-in-law, Gregory Keating.
The legacy was supposed to have been handed down yet another generation. But Spencer Keating had fled. By then the company was clearly going south; just a few months before Keating took the Amtrak north, his father had filed for Chapter 11, and all three of Brown’s Shoe Company’s factories had closed their doors.
It’d had nothing to do with Keating’s leaving. He knew it. But that didn’t stop the guilty.
He frowned at the ceiling, then stomped on the floor, hard enough to hurt. The thud echoed but not loudly; the floor had lost the solidity it’d had in his childhood, when on a Sunday, with the machinery shut off, even the slightest footfall resounded to the ceiling of the top floor. Even cement lost focus after a while.
There was a freight elevator in the far corner, but he instead turned to his left, facing the stairs. The elevator wouldn’t work; and even if, by some miracle, it did, he had never used it; the elevator was tricky and stuck often, and he’d simply been too scared. Plus, the walls of the elevator were drab, lifeless metal. The stairwell, on the other hand, let him look out over the first floor as he ascended. As a boy he’d felt as powerful as his fa-ther; in his younger years, he’d even reflected on the fact that, one day, he would be that powerful. Back when Brown’s Shoe Company had employed half the county, and he stood to inherit a small fortune.
He hesitated at the bottom of the stairs. They were wooden; that was one of the things he’d always loved about them, the polished red oak majestic and regal. He’d felt like a king ascending to this throne.
Now, though, the steps were eaten through. They still looked strong—his grandfather had designed this building to stand a lifetime, and it had surpassed his expectations—but in spots he could see the concrete floor several feet beneath them. He tested the first step; when he put his full weight on it the wood groaned but held.
He walked up, pausing where the stairwell began to curve so he could look over his shoulder. The factory floor lay spread out below him, and for a moment he felt like a boy again, and he could hear the machinery humming away, not nearly as loud as you would think, and he could see the workers bustling back and forth, smiling at each other but focused on the job at hand. Ethereal shapes, translucent; he could only see them in his head but they felt as real as if they were there before him.
Memories. He hated them. Memories are reminders of what you once had and can never have again. Keating had been living with memories the past twenty years. He was more intimate with them than he had ever been with a real person.
“What do you think you’re doing here, Jacky?”
The past hurt. It taunted him with dreams unfulfilled. But it was still better than the present.
He sighed and closed his eyes, opened them again. The memories retreated into his mind, from which no force, not women nor booze nor pain nor distance, could expel them. He turned back around and went up to the second floor, watching the steps carefully as he went.
The second and uppermost floor had housed the offices, mostly comprised of cubicles except for the king’s office at the far end of the floor. That office—whose walls had long since crumbled, or been torn down—had been spacious, elegant, and had featured a ten-foot plate-glass window that overlooked the county. The office had been bright, as had the men who’d resided within it.
The rest of the floor had been for the regulars, those individuals just above the factory workers. The “minions,” Keating’s grandfather had called them, always half-affectionately.
Keating and his sister had played tag on this floor. Never during the day; when the em-ployees were here, this whole floor had been as busy as the one below, with workers criss-crossing the aisles created by the shelves and cubicles and glass-and-wood hallways. Keating had been frightened of this floor during the day; because of the sharp corners and the general lack of tension in the workers, this floor had just as dangerous as the first.
On the occasions when Keating Senior had come in after hours, however, the children had space to play. The first floor was loud; even with the machinery off, the concrete caused a tremendous echo, with the sounds of running and laughter reverberating con-stantly. The second floor, on the other hand, had been quieter. At night, the windows would let in the cool air, and the lights would create shadows and recesses of darkness that were cozy and comfortable. There had been occasions when Keating had curled up and fallen asleep, only to awaken on the car ride home.
Now the comfort was gone. Perhaps it was the rust, or the spiders, or the broken glass…more likely it was none of it. The place was falling apart—even as he watched, a piece of plaster peeled itself from the wall. He glanced up. Asbestos? Perhaps. Even the air was dangerous.
Entropy. The world decays. Keating smiled to ward off the thought but it forced itself upon him. Patricia had known it—known that everything, no matter how wonderful, breaks down in the end. And had that applied to her husband as well? Keating had only to look at his life since the divorce to see the answer. He didn’t blame Patricia because it hadn’t been her fault—she’d been along for the ride. He’d kidnapped her in a way, stolen her from her promising future and dragged her around the world with him. They’d seen exotic places together: Rio de Janeiro, Madison Square Gardens, the Grand Canyon, Yel-lowstone. They’d traveled back and forth across the country. Even detoured to another continent.
And it had all led here. To this pile of rubble that housed all his fondest memories.
She’d known; that was all there was to it. She’d known where his road was leading, and she had finally found the willpower to resist him. Maybe she did it because she loved him too much to watch him discover the rotten black core of his dreams. Maybe she did it because she was scared that she would find a similar fate for herself.
“But she did it. She did it.”
She did it and here he was, just as she’d known, just as he’d at least suspected, if not con-sciously, then in his dreams. His dream of the factory—what had that been if not a mem-ory? Had he really believed it would be as it once was? Even when he’d left, the place had shown the early signs of wear. His father had known what was coming. Perhaps even his sister had known. She’d fled, too, though not right away; she had the good sense to stick around until the end, until the company was finally resting beneath a pauper’s gravestone.
And what had Keating done?
He sighed. A spider crawled across his foot; he kicked it off, and the arachnid went spinning into the nearest gathering of shadows. Sunset was upon him; except in the factory the sun set twice as fast. A literal dark, one that didn’t frighten him in the least.
It was time to go. The stairs would be treacherous in the dark, the floor below just as bad. Even now, with the equipment twenty years in the junkyard, the factory was dan-gerous, and he would do well to leave while there was still enough light by which to see.
Instead, he stayed where he was, looking towards the window in the far wall. His father had often stood there, hands on his hips, staring out with his chin high. Sometimes he held a cup of coffee in his hands. It was a pose, an act, but it was effective nonetheless. Gregory Keating had been a powerful man, as had his father-in-law before him.
Something compelled Keating to walk to the window, to look through it one last time. But he didn’t move. With his eyes closed, he could see the view from where he was: town-houses, freshly painted, with picket fences and green lawns and the summer breeze carrying the scent of barbeques. Beyond the houses, the fields, corn and beans waiting the harvest season. And beyond the fields, the world, foreign and impossible, completely unnecessary in this industrial kingdom that would soon—and always—be his.