The Iowa Review

Shelter in Place

- Elizabeth Wetmore

Nights when he is on call, John Ledbetter sleeps next to the telephone. Even if he and Katherine were up late drinking and playing cards, even if they’ve just finished screwing, he is careful not to fall asleep, or pass out, on the wrong side of the bed. If he picks up the phone on the first ring, management will know he is doing his job, and Katherine might not be disturbed. Tonight, the bell is still vibrating when he presses the handset against his ear. John is twenty-five and works in the petrochemi­cal plant at the edge of town. The youngest man in Safety—lately, the higher-ups have started calling it Risk Management—john is on call weekends, holidays, and the high-risk shifts during turnaround­s and maintenanc­e. He has been on the job long enough to know that when the phone rings in the middle of the night, one of three things has happened: somebody’s dead, somebody’s in jail, or there has been an accident out at the plant. Tonight, in the spring of 1976, with the price of oil rising by the day and the plant operating 24/7, it is almost always the last thing. “This is John.” His voice is husky with sleep and booze. “Hate to bother you, Johnny, but it looks like we might have a spill in the benzene plant.” Mickey Lewis is working the front gate tonight, and this is a relief because Lewis is a calm, circumspec­t man, slow to panic, quick to get a handle on things. “Okay.” John is already reaching for the jeans he dropped on the carpet next to his nightstand a couple of hours earlier. “What do you know?” “Jack and shit, and Jack just ran away.” Lewis pauses to snap open his steel lighter and click it several times. “Some guys were decoking a steam cracker in the benzene plant when the alarm went off.” “How many?” “Four. We think maybe they’ve sheltered in place, but we don’t have any contact.” Lewis sucks deeply on his cigarette, and John squints at the red numbers on his digital clock—3:15. There’s no smoking in the guard shack, John has told him too many times to count. Mickey Lewis exhales. “We don’t know how much benzene is on the floor, but the guys working in the furnace room next door could smell it over there.” John is standing now with the phone wedged between his shoulder and ear. When his foot catches on the leg of his blue jeans, he nearly

topples onto the bed. He’s still a little drunk, but no matter: the drive out to the plant will sober him up. “All right,” he sighs. “Hit the whistle. I’ll be there in fifteen.” The other man laughs gently. “Better make it ten, Johnny, and tell that kid of yours to get back in bed.” “Will do.” Even as he says it, John is listening for the sound of his daughter’s bedroom door. Katherine might sleep through phone calls and plant whistles, especially if she’s been drinking, but not the kid. If the swamp cooler pump even thinks about clicking on, Lauralee is up and wandering the house. Seconds later, the plant whistle sounds, a sharp, thin keening that will be heard all over town, but in the brief silence after John hangs up the phone and before he hears the whistle’s first cry, when he is the only person in town who knows there has been an accident at the plant— John thinks those are loneliest seconds in the world. Katherine sighs in her sleep, and the strand of hair that has fallen across her mouth trembles a bit. Three hours earlier, hoping he might get laid, John had mixed their last drink of the night strong. Now his wife lies facedown and naked, her cheek crushed against the pillow and one arm flung over her head. Sweat glistens on the back of her slim, lightly freckled neck. John has loved her for more than half his life, since they were twelve years old and he watched her beat a local boy with a two-by-four when the kid made a grab for her breast. After the boy ran shrieking across the dirt lot, Katherine tossed the board against a metal dumpster and cussed impressive­ly while John worked up the nerve to invite her over to the wooden shack out back of his parents’ house where he kept a Coleman stove and some cans of chili. He has never known a woman who sleeps harder than his wife, and on nights like this, he is thankful for that. John first hears his daughter coming down the hall when he is standing in the bathroom half-zipped, half-buttoned, trying to take a piss with his mouth full of mouthwash. Lauralee Ledbetter is eight years old and tall like her daddy. Skinny as a jackrabbit, she can’t hardly weigh more than fifty pounds dripping wet, but she still manages to sound like a Brahman bull barreling down the hall. She stops just outside the bathroom door, panting like she’s just run a mile. “Where are you going, Daddy, out to the plant?” John spits in the sink, then breathes into his cupped hands to check for the smell of Crown Royal. “Sure am, Shorty. But it’s nothing. Get back to bed.” “If it’s nothing, how come you have to go?” “Just need to check on some guys, honey.”

“Somebody get hurt? Do I know them?” “Nobody got hurt. Get back in bed, Shorty.” No more than five minutes have passed since the phone rang, it is at least a fifteen-minute drive out to the plant, and Katherine will be pissed off for the rest of the day if Lauralee wakes her up in the middle of the night. So when the kid starts jiggling the doorknob and whining that she’s hungry, can she have a glass of milk and some leftover cornbread, nobody can blame John for jerking the door open and squatting down to look his daughter right in the eye. Her eyes are the same hazel color as her father’s, same dark brown rings around each iris, and her pupils contract in fear when John tells her to get her ass back in bed and stay there until morning. “If I find out you didn’t mind me, Shorty, you and I are going to have a little date with my three-holed belt, and I promise you won’t want to sit down for two days.” If John Ledbetter walks out of the benzene plant alive in a few hours, he might have another story to tell his daughter someday, maybe, when she’s much older, because none of his stories are suitable to be telling an eight-year-old girl. Until then, each story is snugged away in memory, each lovingly named, even if not shared with anybody. If John does tell his daughter about this night, someday, he already knows how the story might begin. With the last thing Mickey Lewis said to him before they hung up the phone. “We know at least one of them is still alive. We can hear him shouting on the other side of the door.”

There’s no traffic on the loop this time of night. The bars closed two hours ago, and there are at least a couple more hours before the stars disappear and the eastern sky starts to glow orange. Five miles south of town, casing-gas flares burn steadily, turning the sky the color of a port wine stain. Across the oil patch, pumpjacks move up and down, faithful as clocks. Scattered headlights pierce the night as foremen check rigs or roughnecks come home from the late shift. These days, the fields are alive with movement, always producing, always giving. John has never thought of this as anything but good news. Anything is better than what they saw in the early sixties when the price of oil plummeted and the fields went dark, when pumpjacks rusted where they sat and anybody who could afford to leave the Permian Basin did, when everybody else tightened their belts and hung on. In John’s family, it had been every kid for himself during those years. He had five older brothers, and every one of them was rotten to the core. Every August, John sat with his skinny ass pressed against a wooden chair and waited for the new teacher to spot his name on the roster, Ledbetter. He watched the shadow of fear and hatred drift across her face

like a thunderclo­ud covering the sun. Family life was everybody piling into Paw Paw’s pickup truck and driving downtown to fetch one of the older sons out of jail. By the time he was ten, John was more or less living in the wooden shed out back where his dad kept the lawnmower. While his brothers jumped bail and screwed as many local girls as they could talk into it, John made scrambled eggs on his Coleman stove and listened to the dramas unfold. The brothers married and divorced, went broke and borrowed money, dropped their children off at the house and drove away. And all the while, John watched his mother and father smoke cigarettes while they tried to figure out how to pay for the most recent disaster. They were already sick when he met Katherine. By the time Lauralee was born, they’d been gone for years. But tonight, there’s Jessi Colter on the radio, and John is singing along quietly, his headlights fixed on the road ahead. Something else he learned in Vietnam—nothing sobers you up like a rush of adrenaline. John is feeling A-OK when his little Ford hatchback speeds past the sheriff’s deputy parked on the shoulder with his headlights off. Beneath the yellow dome light above the driver’s seat, the officer reads the newspaper while he eats an apple. John gives two quick honks as he passes by. The deputy knows this young man, just as he knows all eight of the men who work Safety, and he heard the plant whistle fifteen minutes earlier. When John looks in his rearview mirror, the deputy has set his apple on the dash. He holds up his right hand, his palm facing the windshield, as if to say hello or good morning or maybe, good luck. John knows the situation is critical as soon as he pulls up to the front gate and sees that Mickey Lewis has already sent someone over to his office to pick up the safety equipment. Lewis is ten years older than John and nearly seven feet tall with hands the size of cast iron skillets. He played quarterbac­k at Baylor several lifetimes ago, before he blew out his right knee in his junior year. Holding John’s respirator in one hand, he reaches out to shake the younger man’s hand with the other. For the past five years, benzene has been the throbbing hemorrhoid in management’s collective asshole. There have been studies and lawsuits and OSHA men crawling all over the plant, quizzing supervisor­s about industry practices—ventilatio­n, storage and disposal, contingenc­y plans. Now when there’s an accident, management wants Safety—or Risk Management—to go in first and look things over before making an informed judgment about what has already happened, what needs to happen next, and what kind of report ought to be filed. When Mickey Lewis leans in close enough that only

John can hear what he has to say, the younger man holds his breath and hopes he doesn’t stink of whiskey. Here’s what they know: four men were doing a turnaround on a steam cracker unit—two decoking the furnace and two moving barrels of benzene so they could hose down the floor and walls—and next thing everybody knows, there’s shouting in the unit and some slamming doors. Then silence. Lewis had the engineers cut the power to that part of the plant to minimize the chance of an explosion, an event that could easily turn an accident into an all-out disaster. So far, so good. What he can’t figure out, Lewis tells John, is why the men didn’t leave the area immediatel­y, which is SOP, but there’s a safe room in this particular unit, and he’s hoping maybe the men sheltered in place. He hopes to hell they are not standing in a puddle of benzene, or worse, lying face down in it. Until about ten minutes ago, when he abruptly shut up, Mickey says, they knew at least one of them was still alive. “Poor bastard wouldn’t quit shouting, though nobody could make out his words,” he tells John. “Who are the men?” John has been listening carefully, even as he checks the levels on his oxygen canisters and examines the respirator hose and facepiece for cracks or tears. “Austin, Rountree, and Mcadams. Also some new guy, Mexican kid name of Velasco. Turned eighteen last week.” None of the names are any more or less familiar to John than any other name he might hear around the plant, or town, but you can’t know everybody. There are four thousand men working in this plant and turnover is high in this line of work. That’s especially true this year, when anybody can walk out the front gate and go to work making twice as much money in the oil patch. Still, John is relieved that none of these are the names of known troublemak­ers, guys who are likely to cut corners on safety or drink on shift or, God forbid, sneak a joint behind one of the cooling towers. He is already suited up and walking quickly toward the benzene plant when Mickey cracks the joke he’s been saving for the past two minutes, ever since he leaned close enough to the younger man to catch a whiff of his hair. “Hey, lover boy,” he shouts, “next time, take a shower before you head out the door. You smell like a goddamn cathouse.” Management hired John Ledbetter because he had served as an Army medic and because he seemed like the kind of veteran who wouldn’t come unglued the first time he saw an explosion or a grisly injury—flash burn, chemical burn, traumatic amputation—and God knows management has seen plenty of the other kind of war veteran, guys who fall screaming to the floor the first time they hear a catalytic cracker switch

on, guys whose time overseas has so ruined their hearing that they might never hear the soft click, click, click of a faulty igniter switch much less a supervisor shouting for them to evacuate now. Much as everybody in town appreciate­s their service, veterans are an accident waiting to happen, a liability. But Ledbetter served his country and came home safe, and he does not wish to talk about his experience­s overseas. If you sit down next to him in the break shack and start telling war stories, he stands up and politely excuses himself. Best of all, management knows, John has a family and that’s exactly who you want working in Safety—someone with a lot to lose. Someone who will spend ten minutes every month sitting in a swivel chair across the desk from the powers that be with his monthly accident report in his hand. Someone who will look at his hands when one of the managers reminds him that, while nobody ever wants to break the law, if John can bandage a man up or give him some oxygen and a couple of paid days off, John might save himself some time on the paperwork. And when that same manager points at the wall behind him and asks John if he likes to fish, and John says, no, not really. See that big old marlin hanging up there? he asks John. Yes, sir. Well, he’d still be swimming in the ocean if he’d kept his mouth shut. John will twist his hands in lap and nod. Yes, sir. Because for all its dangers small and large, immediate and long-term, a petrochemi­cal plant provides a regular paycheck in an economy where safety might as well be an ocelot: you hardly ever see one, and when you do, it is gone so quickly you think maybe it was just a heat shimmer, a flash of gold moving across the desert. “Still,” John sometimes jokes to Mickey Lewis over a couple of beers on any given Friday afternoon, “you survive a war, a goddamned war, only to come home and go to work in a place that could blow sky-high any minute. Where’s the goddamned point?” “Earning a living, brother,” Mickey always says. “Feeding the hungry mouths.”

Ten yards from the benzene plant, John starts to smell the fumes. He is already wearing the required gear—boots, goggles, safety hat—now he slips the cloth harness of his respirator over his ears and tugs the straps tight, then tighter, until he can no longer smell the odd, sweet odor of benzene, something between gasoline and rotting flowers. Forty-five minutes earlier, John leaned over his wife and breathed in the scent of her shampoo. Now he stands in front of the door to the furnace room, resting his hand on the steel handle and wishing like hell he were back in bed with her.

With his hands pressed flat against the steel door, he pauses for a few seconds, trying to see if he can get a feeling about how it will be in there. This, too, is a habit he got into during the war. You stand outside the entrance to a blown tunnel or at the edge of a rice field or just inside the gate of a sacked village. Or you stand outside the steel door to a furnace that heats liquid hydrocarbo­ns to the seven hundred–plus degrees needed to produce ethane and benzene, and you try to feel it in your gut. What has happened here? The problem in all these situations is that even when your gut tells you this is going to be bad, you still have to go in. The furnace room is dark, save for a glass globe about the size of a hubcap that is mounted on the wall next to the door. Called a nightlight by the men at the plant, it runs on batteries and emits a small, steady red glow that reaches about twenty feet or so into the room. John switches on both his headlamp and his flashlight then immediatel­y directs both lights toward floor. At the base of the furnace, a fifty-gallon drum lies on its side, pale yellow liquid streaming through an inch-wide crack in the bottom seam. Next to it are three more barrels, all on their sides, all leaking fluid. Most likely, the barrels had been compromise­d for months and the bottoms collapsed as soon as the men tried to move them to do maintenanc­e. At least this is what John suspects. Hard to know for sure without asking one of the men—men who are, so far, missing in action. In John’s experience, liquid benzene, or C6H6, is like a goddamned viper, mean and unpredicta­ble. And because it evaporates quickly in the air but degrades only slightly in water, when it meets a body of water—a river, a lake, or a series of puddles on the floor of a furnace room—it floats. It is also highly flammable, and in this room where John Ledbetter stands, where most of the floor is covered with water from the steam washer, the concrete floor glistens with it. Because benzene vapor is heavier than air, in the moments just after a spill, the vapor will sink to the floor then sidewind across the concrete where, like any viper, it will eventually gather in a low-lying area. If the men who were working in this room were paying attention during their safety training class, they would have known that if you can’t get out of the room, the next best thing is to climb up high—up on one of the catwalks, for example—where the vapors will not be as strong. Thankfully, at least one person on the work crew appears to have stayed awake during the safety film. The voice, when John first hears it, drifts down from some place far above his head. Years later, if he gets a chance, John might tell his daughter that if he had been a man of faith, he would have been tempted to think this is how you first hear the voice of God—not a shout, not a thundercla­p, but a small, scared voice in the dark. “Hey, man. You come to get me out of here?”

“Yeah,” John says. “I did.” “I shouted but nobody came.” The voice cracks, and it occurs to John that the man is very young, maybe even still a teenager. “I’m here now. Are you Velasco?” “Yeah.” John peers upward, shining his light at the complex of steel beams and catwalks. “Where are you?” “Up here. On the furnace.” The furnace room is at least an acre in size, the ceiling at least sixty feet above the concrete floor. The steam cracker and processing equipment take up half of that space, and the furnace is forty feet tall. Hundreds of drums filled with benzene and ethane are lined up against the walls, fat little steel soldiers, each in their place, save for the four traitors lying on their sides. John makes his way through the dark slowly, trying not to stumble and fall facedown into a puddle of benzene. He keeps his safety hat turned toward the ceiling and looks for the man. Velasco is only a few years younger than himself, but John is already thinking of him as a kid. When he asks the boy if he is hurt, John is trying to get a more complete picture of what has happened, but he is also trying to pinpoint the voice that is lost among the maze of steel and concrete. “I ain’t hurt,” the kid says. John aims his headlamp in the general direction of the voice, but it’s all steel beams and darkness up there. “How are you feeling?” “Kind of sick to my stomach, kind of sleepy.” “Where is everybody else? They shelter in place? They hurt?” The boy laughs then, a snicker and a howl that says I am scared shitless. But there’s more than fear in this kid’s voice. He is also deeply pissed off. “Those fuckers ran out on me. They fucking left me up here.” And just as the kid speaks that last word, here, as if the word makes the action, John finally spots him. Velasco is at least five stories high, clinging for dear life to a steel pole and perched on the lip of the steam furnace. At first glance, John can hardly believe it. No one but a skinny, eighteen-year-old kid with an ass hardly bigger than a cantaloupe could balance on that steel lip. Anyone else would already be lying face down on the oven floor. Velasco’s feet are dangling over the inside edge of the oven, like he might be sitting on a fishing dock. But this is not a day at the lake, it’s a forty-foot plunge straight into the steam-cracking furnace, and as John stands there in the dark, his respirator clicking and wheezing, benzene fumes pricking at the outer edges of his eyes, even with the safety goggles in place, and his flashlight pointed at a man so young he probably doesn’t even need

to shave every morning, here’s another detail that John is now able to observe: Velasco is not wearing his safety harness. Why the fuck not, John cannot even begin to guess. “I can’t move,” Velasco says. “I’m dizzy.” No shit, John thinks. Jesus. “What the hell happened in here?” “Nothing, man. I don’t know.” “Why did the other men take off after the spill?” “I don’t know,” the kid is whining now. “I was up here working by myself, decoking the furnace like they told me to. Then I heard the drums fall over and everybody freaked. Then they were gone.” “Y’all been drinking in here?” “No!” “Smoking dope?” “No! Hell, no!” The kid is still young enough and stupid enough to worry that he might get into trouble, when he ought to be worrying that he’s going to plunge face-first into that goddamn cooker. The three other men who were working in here had probably seen the spill and, knowing that drinking or getting high on the job means their ass belongs to Mickey Lewis, decided tonight was as good a night as any to head over to the bar and tie one on. Maybe they snuck out through one of the delivery entrances, and Mickey didn’t see them go. Or maybe they didn’t realize the severity of the benzene spill when they decided that leaving Velasco up on the furnace without a ladder or his safety harness was a pretty good joke to play on the new kid. But the other three men will get up early tomorrow morning and go find new jobs out in the oilfields, no problem, and whatever the details, here they are—this young man and John. And John understand­s something else now: he is going to need help. Velasco has been breathing benzene vapor for nearly an hour and although the fumes are weaker up there, he is not going to be in any shape to climb down safely. Before John can bring in the fire brigade and a cleanup crew, the kid needs oxygen. And he needs to be hooked into a goddamn safety harness. John checks his respirator levels to find them low but not dangerousl­y so. He will climb up, take one hell of a deep breath, and then give his respirator to Velasco. Then he will climb back down as quickly as he can and run for help. He checks his watch. Four o’clock. One hour since the phone rang, since he pressed a finger gently against the strand of hair that lay in front of Katherine’s mouth, since he leaned down and told his daughter that he would beat her ass if she didn’t obey him. If he dies tonight in this fucking room, if some asshole hits the power and that furnace kicks on, or if Velasco panics

and knocks them both into the steam cooker, those will be his last words to his kid. “Sit tight,” he tells the young man. “I’m coming up the ladder.”

Five stories up and crouched at the edge of the steam furnace, John removes his safety harness and tries to slip it around the kid’s narrow waist. The belt is a six-inch wide nylon band with straps that go between the legs, and while John would like to tuck the younger man’s legs into these, it is impossible from this angle. The waist belt will have to do. When Velasco grabs him and hangs on for dear life, John does not give in to panic. Gently, he peels Velasco’s fingers off his arm and sets the kid’s hand back on the lip of the furnace. Velasco is shaking violently from fear and from the effects of benzene vapor, and when he reaches again for the older man’s arm, John yells, “Quit it!” It is the same tone of voice he uses with Lauralee when she is about to ride her bike through the empty flood canal or do some other stupid thing, but Velasco keeps pawing at John as if he might try to climb onto his chest and be carried down the ladder, clutched like a baby in John’s arms. “Be still!” Through the cloudy plastic lenses of the safety goggles, John tries to make eye contact, but Velasco’s eyes are swollen nearly closed, his eyelids the color of raw meat, his skin like old ashes, and John understand­s—just as he understood a hundred times during the war—that they are both likely to die here. “What’s your first name?” John asks him. “I can’t breathe,” the kid says, “I can’t fucking breathe.” “What is your name?” “Michael.” The kid’s left eyelid twitches a little. He licks his lips and grimaces at the taste. “Michael. I want you to look straight ahead, not up and not down. You listen to me.” John’s voice is calm now. He might as well be in his daughter’s bedroom after a bad dream has awakened her. He is checking the closet and looking under the bed, he is saying to her, as he is saying to this boy five stories high and scared shitless: Don’t be afraid. “Don’t be afraid, Michael. We’ll have you down from here in a jiffy.” John slips the lanyard around the steel pole that runs from the floor to the ceiling of the furnace room and after he has felt and, more importantl­y, heard the sturdy click of the D-lock, he exhales into his respirator. If the kid falls now, he might have back problems for the rest of his life, but unless he slams his head against the side of the steel furnace, he probably won’t die. John breathes as deeply as he can three, four, five times. When he removes his face-piece and respirator, his eyes and

skin start to burn immediatel­y, as if he is standing in front of an open furnace. He knows the fumes are only going to get worse as he descends the ladder and he tries to move quickly, but John’s face is twice as wide as the boy’s, and he can’t get a good seal on the kid. Finally, John takes Velasco’s hand and sets it gently on top of the mask. This is Michael’s job, his only job. John signals to the younger man to hold the mask in place while he goes for help. Don’t be afraid. Then John begins to descend the ladder, estimating the distance as he goes. At forty feet, he reminds himself that there are ten rungs to thirty feet. Thirty feet means ten careful steps and he will only be twenty feet from the ground. At twenty feet, he knows he is in trouble. The cloud of vapor grows dense and his lungs feel as if they have caught fire. His pulse goes strange, as if his heart is having trouble keeping its rhythm. Velasco is hollering something at him, too, but either the respirator has garbled his words so badly that John can’t understand, or the benzene has made him lightheade­d enough to distort the boy’s words. Either way, John needs to make it down this ladder, pull open the door to the furnace room and shout for help. He needs to let Mickey Lewis know there’s no one sheltering in place here, just one scared kid and one hell of a chemical spill. He is fifteen feet from the ground when he loses his balance and slips off the ladder, hitting the concrete first with his ankle then with his elbow. John lands hard enough to crack a couple of ribs and fracture his anklebone, but he is hardly able to consider the pain before he rolls face first into a puddle of water several inches deep and shining with benzene. When the chemical burn starts to spread across the left side of his face, John rises up shrieking. This is how it ends, he thinks. You buy a house and join the Army and try to do better than anyone you’ve ever known, you survive a goddamned war, you leave your sleeping wife, and you yell at your kid on your way out the door—so you can die on the floor of a benzene plant in your hometown. With thirty feet between him and the door, John again stumbles and falls forward, both hands stretched out in front of him, his foot dragging behind. The skin on his face has begun to peel away from the muscle beneath, and every step is a reminder of how easily a body can break, can be broken, and even though he is still a dozen steps away from the steel door that stands between him and the world, John is shouting. His voice is hoarse, but it will carry well enough to get Mickey Lewis’s attention in the guard shack. “Listen,” he says, “there’s someone alive in here. And me too! John. Here I am.”

Years later, when he tells his daughter about this night, when this is a story he tells sons-in-law and grandchild­ren, John will say that this was the name of the game for his whole working life: being in trouble doesn’t mean you can stop moving, and being afraid doesn’t mean you get to go home. This is how you pay the bills and feed the hungry mouths at your dining room table. You can’t imagine what else you’d do for a living—and every man you ever knew feels the same. Ninety minutes have passed since John rose from his bed, pulled on his blue jeans, and listened for the plant whistle. He will miss a couple of days of work and spend a week on desk duty while his ribs heal up. He will have a scar on his face so thick that when he is an old man, his daughter’s children will smooth their fat little fingers across it and shout with delight at Paw Paw’s port wine stain, the texture of it, its size and its shape. That’s my birthmark, he will tell his grandchild­ren, and when one of them asks if it hurts, he will tell them sometimes, in the same way his ankle sometimes still throbs, and his lungs sometimes still ache. But the pain is wonderful, he will tell them, it means he is still alive.

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