by Jackson Saul
Thomas Noonan catches a sweet whiff of it before he goes under, and it might make him have a thought. When it’s molasses that’s sweeping people away, they have a little more time to think last thoughts than if it were water. Noonan is a longshoreman, and he is strong from lifting things up and putting them down. But now he himself is lifted up from the shoreside cobblestone, and when he goes down, he stays down. He is strong, but not strong enough for this.
In his work, he stays put in the same place but sees people come from far away. They ride in across the very ocean he rode in across two decades ago in what might as well have been a coffin ship. They bear tans from sun fallen across lower latitudes, the same sun gone pale above in Massachusetts winter. They carry cotton bales and coffee beans. He tells his wife he gives up the better pay of a contract on one of these ships he unloads because of those toes he lost to trenchfoot: they make it impossible to balance on deck. Cathleen might believe the unspoken part to be that he is jealous and unable to stray far from their home. Worried about going to sea for a year and returning to a newborn. But the real reason is drowning—the flailing underwater terror, the involuntary final inhale. Sailors describe these sensations to Noonan on the docks, as if they experienced them and survived.
“Were you unloading bricks today?” Cathleen asked last night.
“Yes,” he said. “Probably for the new building on Salem.”
He asked her how she knew, and she said, “Because that’s what you’re like tonight, like bricks.”
A murky swell inside him was the knowledge that there exist no metaphors in real life, that there is only real life and that things are no more than things themselves. He cannot articulate this thought, though, and still he knows she is a little right, and can’t bring himself to say it, which is why he yells at her, why he sometimes wants to hurt her. You look at the same thing over and over again, feeling it, smelling it, and you become like it. And this molasses slumping in now from the west—it does not wash him clean of the world like water but makes him like itself. Coats man and woman and horse alike into the equality of dark unrecognizability, of writhing under dark cauls hardening in the air. The more he struggles, the more stuck he gets. As with how this morning, as the breakfast plates lowered to the table, he tried to say how he felt and had to leave the home angry, tabling a fight run through with the usual themes. And now, even as his lungs start to contract and suck on themselves, he might think, with some satisfaction, “Yes, me dying will really make her mad.” At least this he could not have anticipated. At least this he could not have stopped. At least this is not his fault.
To Noonan, a woman’s work seems little, especially in their little home, but this is largely because Cathleen renders it invisible. The dinner somehow done. The floor somehow brushed free of road salt. Each time Noonan goes to the docks, it’s like he leaves her the lone assignment of thinking about what to do to make them happier. But they have no children for Noonan to leave behind, and with nobody young for whom to make a better life, Cathleen might feel there to be no reason to make that better life. “One thing is not another,” she would say. “You don’t have children to have better lives. Or maybe you do have them to make life better, but they don’t make life better. Then what of the children’s lives?” When Noonan made her leave her parents and siblings in Cork, wagging hankies from the harbor maw and then never to be seen by them again, he did the same with his own kin, who gave no such farewell. Thus, Noonan and Cathleen each brought tendrils of their lineage to America, only for those lines to die even before he will die today. When he says he wants what’s best for the family, he means he wants what’s best for him. When he speaks to her, he speaks on behalf of no one but himself. Now these two Noonans have their misery all to themselves, soon to be all to Cathleen.
This morning, Cathleen said, “You expect so much that I’ve got no space to surprise you.” She was watching him eat the soda bread she herself hadn’t touched. “You want so much I’ve no room for my own wants.”
Noonan asked, “What do you want, Cathleen?”
“I don’t want to have to tell you,” she said. “I want for you to know and for me not to have to say.”
“Your problem seems to be that I never have anything to say,” he said.
“You know all has gone sour and spoiled,” she said, “and yet you point out nothing I have done wrong. Whose problem is it then?” She restrained her voice and made it go soft. We are with her now. She flitted her glance between each of his avoidant eyes so that she could see his anger when it approached and pull herself back. “Will you ever change?” she asked. “Do you even want to? When were things ever decent in the first place?”
Cathleen heard a tremor run through Noonan’s next exhale, but he only brushed the crumbs off his brown outfit. She dressed him in brown because brown hid the stains, and because she found brown sadder even than blue.
“We’re old enough to see it’s not going to get any better,” said Noonan.
“I think you can make big changes,” said Cathleen.
“I can only make small changes,” he said, beginning to crumble his bread on his plate.
“I think you can create,” she said. “I think you can make new things.”
“I can only move them from one place to another,” he said. “Things other people have made.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” she said. “I don’t think you’re done yet.”
“I think I’m finished and complete,” he said. “I think I have one thing, one task I can do until I get too old.”
“You’re so selfish, Thomas.”
“And you’re not selfish enough, Cathleen.”
Noonan rose and Cathleen shrank and he moved toward the door and she followed him.
“You know my situation,” she said from the doorway as he set foot on the street. “I’m not afraid of anything, except in my own home. And I can never leave home, because what would I do? I thought at least one of us could do something different.”
The storage tank hadn’t usually been so full, but the Purity Distilling Company was rushing to beat the Eighteenth Amendment, which will see ratification tomorrow and go into effect in a year. The January day’s unseasonable forty-degree warmth made the molasses expand against the brittle thin steel, still cold from this week’s two-degree frigidity. Carbon dioxide from the fermenting goo increased the tank’s pressure even more. When the manhole at the base of the tank blew from the column of weight pressing down and out against it, the fatigue crack followed, and rivets burst like machine-gun shots. The ensuing dryland wave runs thirty-five miles-per-hour, faster than the rare cars of the day, and sometimes reaches two-stories high. Nearly two hundred people—including two ten-year-olds, little rapscallions scooping up molasses from puddles around the already-leaky tank, and including Noonan, on his way back to the docks, too-hot jacket on two fingers over his shoulder—they all get lofted first by a shush of displaced air, and many then get buried by buildings swept from their foundations. The surge scours the waterfront and turns everything to kindling.
It will not be until next year when anti-immigrant hysteria here in Boston kills Sacco and Vanzetti, when every derailed train, every stubbed toe is an anarchist plot. This disaster with the molasses is arbitrary, a random convergence of factors, and it remains unsullied by people’s paranoid preoccupations. No frantic meaning making at this time, not just yet. Last year, as many as a hundred million people died of the flu. Over five times the number that died in the Great War over the four years before. But you might not remember the pandemic a hundred years from now, until too late, because there is no narrative sense to it. No clear connection you can make to what comes before or after. There exists no conflict or grand question with this explosion either, only instantaneous incident. It is too fast. There is no awareness of impending doom. There is no moral imperative, no decision for Noonan to make, no responsibility in the present tense. This is not yet a narrative but not only something that happened. It is also what didn’t happen. Which is not to say the infinite everything that didn’t happen. Only those things Noonan intended to make happen. The change he didn’t induce. The molasses is essential for rum as well as munitions, and Noonan never drinks, just as Noonan never did a great many other things. His story ended before it ends in these seconds in the goop. And this event is simply unusual, and kind of funny, and twenty-one people die.
Noonan survived the Great War for this. He endured the occasional gore, but it was mostly the boredom that was bad. His trenchmates’ imitations of his accent during those unpunctuated stretches of nothing happening. Suffocating himself in a mask, his breath coming back wet and hot off the charcoal filter, waiting for the gas that was supposed to come roiling across No Man’s Land in unfavorable winds. He managed to find the spaces between the mortars, to happen to storm the already-abandoned bunker. Only to go home because of that rotted appendage. Now, having avoided blood-wet death and stayed on dry land to avoid drowning, this survivor is drowning on dry land. The wave and Noonan meet the Harbor, and of course he can’t swim, and he wrestles with the mass around him like Proteus as he goes down. Past, above, below, and at him come timbers and shingles. Broken glass and foundation rubble. The body of one of those two ten-year-olds. Cast-iron cookery, somehow afloat. Firemen’s hats. All the physical information collects there for the taking, but it is not knowledge. He might decide as it passes that he knows nothing. The truth is just the most recent thing you thought, and Noonan might think no last thing. The things of this world are solid but not certain, and they come in the flood like the list of bad qualities he has had—self-pity, self-abuse, self-regard. Cathleen has continued to envision and love him as the person he could still become, but Noonan now only could have been that person, and can be no one but Noonan himself.
Jackson Saul lives in Alabama, where he works for The University of Alabama Press. He previously served as editor of Black Warrior Review and as an assistant editor at Restless Books. His work appears in or is forthcoming from Iowa Review, Gettysburg Review, Joyland Magazine, The Literary Review, Hotel, and Northern Woodlands Magazine.
Image: Lluvia Morales/Unsplash