His father’s tool and die shop is gone. Jesse unhooks his flashlight from his duty rig, presses the button and pans the light over the oily foundation, past the spurt of weeds growing in the cracks, their green stems stubbled with furry white barbs. Once, not so long ago, his father made him work Saturdays in the shop, dredging hydraulic fluid from the floor with industrial soap and a mop. He scrubbed until the surface reflected the windows above where sunlight poured in and crows could be seen gliding back and forth across the sky like black smudges. He holds a hand close to his face to study his cuticles. They're pink and healthy, somehow left unscathed from all those years of hard work and oil, days when he slit his fingers on the edge of a table and felt the blood run warm over his skin or watched his thumb swell after dropping a steel press block on it.

He turns his hand over to review the thick dark hair on the back side, then brings it forward again and inspects his cleaned fingernails more closely. He remembers the oily gunk that got trapped beneath them after cleaning the floor, and how he would coax it out with an exacto knife, digging unsteadily beneath the nail until a tiny slice opened on his skin and flooded with blood. Nothing worked. Small screwdrivers, the folded corners of shop orders, not even toothpicks could remove the gunk. Sometimes gasoline or turpentine burned it away, leaving dark stains on the backs of his hands and infections that burned deep inside the cuts weeks later.

Still, the work wasn’t bad, he decides, resting his hand on his arm nd moving it back and forth so he can feel the ribbon of his biceps form into a ball when he flexes. He can't fault the old man for that. Moving broken, gut-rusted machines out to the back yard behind the trees with nothing but a rickety dolly, sweeping out the shop on Saturdays, soaking up all of that accumulated oil and fluid — everything Jesse did gave him strength and defined his character. He likes to think that a part of his identity was whittled by the ball-breaking work and nourished by the sweat that trickled down his back into his shorts when he was a boy. He continues touching his arm, pinching the knot of muscle until a pain settles deep in the fibers.

A car turns down the street, accelerates, whistles past the shop, its headlights spilling across the weedy lawn, illuminating Jesse standing on the shop property during a break from his regular patrol, squeezing his muscles. The headlights fade into the trees. Past the space where the foundation once sat, beyond trunks threaded by vines and the drill presses whose wiring hangs like twisted strands of black hair, city lights glow in the low clouds above Detroit. On those Saturdays when he mopped the floor and passed time waiting for his father to finish the books, Jesse scaled the trees at sundown. He would sit in a crook of an old maple and study the hazy outlines of the Penobscot, Guardian and Fisher buildings that studded the horizon. To the west, tendrils of smog from oil refineries hovered overhead. Sunlight glinted off the highest windows and made him feel buoyant, as if a future hung in the air of Detroit’s empty skyscrapers like motes of dust, or floated in the river mist, waiting for him to reach out and clutch it in his hands.

To his father, the city held no one’s future. Crap hole, he used to sneer from behind The Detroit News spread in front of his face at breakfast before he left for the shop. He was raised in the shadow of Corktown a block from old Tiger Stadium, the son of a World War II vet and mother who taught in city schools, and he’d learned early in his life how to take a beating. The News always carried some story about a company suckered into relocating to downtown based on the promise of tax incentives and the availability of ownerless plots choked with weeds, trash, and the occasional dead body. It was clear he had little use for the city based on the grumble in his throat and frequent bullshit hissed under his breath. From his tree, Jesse would peer at the Renaissance Center rising out of the gray cover like an iridescent fist above the other buildings, its middle finger extended. Somewhere beneath the hazy skyline, Coleman Young’s memory scuffed across cement floors of deserted plants, the ones on Mack and Piquette tagged in neon graffiti. The voices of Bob Seger, Iggy Pop and MC5 no longer thumped from smoky bar doorways in rhythm with Lynch Road Assembly, replaced instead by the swoosh of traffic speeding past on I-75 and out of the city.

He looks around the lot, shakes his head. More than 13 or 14 years since the Big Three’s retreat. A glacier on a slow melt. Lynch Road hardly managed three shifts. Pontiac produced its last GTO in 1974, a neutered V-8 that hesitated and sputtered when the pedal was mashed to the floor. And Iggy Pop — Jesse can’t recall if he’s still alive or dead thanks to an overdose or bad blood infusion.

He passes his light over the trees and brush in the backyard, over the hewn mounds of dirt and sod from where bulldozers bit into the foundation and chewed slabs of cement floor before driving into the crumbling walls. The rusty steel beams that had once jutted from the concrete and stretched to the ceiling are gone. They were plucked months ago by the crane’s jaw as it swooped down from high above the trees, clenched the beams between its teeth and ripped them out with a smoky growl of its engine.

He steps back and reassesses the area where he stands. Crickets hum cheezit in the tall grass to his right. He squints at the areas where the beams had once framed the pale wall like a rib cage, wondering what they will become after they're melted down. Cars. Rebar for the endless highway construction throughout the state. Roadway signs. Motorcycles. He stands rigid, contemplating the days when he scoured rust from the beams with a wire brush and bucket of gasoline on Saturday afternoons. Once, when he was twelve or thirteen, he remembered the old man looming behind him, arms crossed over his prodigious gut, declaring, "All that rust needs to come off before OSHA comes in next week. We get it done early enough, we can head up to the cabin sooner."

Jesse hadn't looked up to acknowledge his father's words. It was near the end of a nine-hour day. Even though he looked forward to another weekend up north, he was too tired, sore and didn't want to expend the last drops of energy he had left. A moment of silence drifted between them, brittle and porous like desert heat. Finally, his father inched forward, tapped him on the arm to get his attention. He pointed a thick finger at the ceiling and said, "Even at the top, where the ceiling and metal meet. Use the hydraulic lift to get at them."

Jesse dropped his brush into the bucket of gasoline, listened to it kerplunk and spit a few drops over the edge. He stared directly above him to where his father pointed at an orangish bubble attached to the seam where the beam and ceiling met. A few feathery layers had branched out in a small arch.

"You gotta get all that shit off,” he muttered irritably. “Use a putty knife if you have to.” Jesse sighed. He rubbed his forearms, trying to soften up the muscle, his gaze still fixed on the beams above. He was tired of the work, worn down from his father’s tightened eyes from the office window or when he stood over him, waiting for a reaction. “I’ll get it,” he said.

The old man peered at him, eyes narrowed, as if studying a newly machined metal for flaws. "There’s an extra ten in it for you if you do a good job,” he said. “If you need a hand with the lift, let me know. Make sure you strap in before you go up. Always think safety. I'll be in the office." “Okay.”

His father lumbered toward the office at the other end of the greasy shop, his upper body slanting to the right, a memory of the worn-down disc fused in his back. He hesitated, then swung around, fixing his gaze on a spot of floor in front of Jesse.

"If I haven't mentioned it, you're doing a good job," he said with a quick nod.

“Appreciate your help, Jess.”

Jesse watched his face. It was weathered with lines that reminded him of the Grand Canyon’s craggly rock during a trip they took when he was seven.

“Thanks, I’ll get it done,” he said, reaching into the bucket for the brush.

Now there’s nothing left but a pile of debris and his father’s money. Even the clay has been dredged from deep within the earth. Jesse looks down. At the space where the door used to be, he crouches and slowly begins to fiddle with the soil, pinching it between his thumb and forefinger, feeling the bits of rock stick to his skin. Most of it is dark and rich, good enough for a farm or large garden. He plunges his fingers deeper, thinking he'll touch those first grains of sand that his father dug his shovel into the day construction began, or his fingers will glide over the butt of a cigarette the old man might have smoked on a break. He glances up at the mist in the surrounding trees, trying to remember if his father had smoked when he was young. He presses a finger to his temple and rubs, but his recollections are out of reach, as if he is awakened from a deep sleep and can only remember blurry shadows — his father and a date lingering in the doorway of his room, red glow of a cigarette ember floating in the dark, their eyes watching him as he pretended to sleep. He continues digging in the dirt, forming a smooth trench, feeling the soil squeeze under his fingernails, packing in tight until there isn't room for another speck. He concentrates a few seconds with his eyes closed, trying to summon his father's ghost from the trees and ask him what it feels like to have a big piece of your history wiped clean from the world.

The radio in his squad car squawks behind him. Jesse takes a few deep breaths, stands up, walks back to his unit idling on the street to resume his nightly patrol. He slumps into the seat, closes the door, puts the Crown Vic in gear and drives down the street. He glances back at the shop foundation and mounds of dirt, then further to the trees in back where light reflects off a piece of abandoned machinery. He regrets not moving that old equipment or planting hibiscus, Japanese maples or Lilac before putting the property on the market. Make it look as if an oil-stained concrete pad had never existed on the land before.

As he drives, he catches a glimpse of himself in the window. For a second he recognizes his father's face in the glass — the tight-lipped mouth, eye sockets shrouded in shadow, the pale, mottled skin hemmed by dark hair. The recognition lasts only a second; when he turns to face the window, his father's face is replaced by points of light that stud the horizon and blink between trees and empty lots.

He raises his hand and turns it over. Definitely inherited the old man’s hands, he decides, feeling a tiny spot of emptiness grow inside his stomach. His father had an unrelenting grip. Could easily hold a 20-pound die plate with just a thumb and forefinger without straining. Practiced at lugging multiple 15-gallon buckets across the floor with each one. He closes and opens his fist once more, then looks down at the hardened skin and red knuckles that have emerged over the years. The old man loved to use his hands when he spoke. During Fourth of July parties at the neighbors', after drinking cans of Schlitz Malt Liquor and eating too much Polish sausage, he'd sometimes speculate out loud about passing the business down to Jesse and his plan to open two more shops. He'd raise his hands in front of him and spread them over the heads of the drunk neighbors like a preacher at an outdoor revival, indicating the growth he'd achieve some day with Jesse running the business while he played golf in Florida or lounged on the deck of some cruise ship.

Jesse listens to the drone of tires on pavement, trying to forget those parties. Time has different ideas, he thinks to himself, steering the Crown Vic through the intersection at Woodward and Perry Street. As he passes through, he can see a smudge of green light from the traffic signal that shimmers on the greasy pavement. He pulls up at a 7-11. In the past four years, several late night robberies have taken place inside the store, one of which resulted in a clerk being shot in the face. Somehow the poor woman survived. He watches the headlights of his squad car meander across the faded gray tar lot until they come to rest on the curb. A young black boy hunches over The Detroit Free Press stand. He jerks the handle with small, violent thrusts that cause the metallic door to echo against the houses across the street and throughout the quiet neighborhood. The boy wears a blue and black Pontiac High School varsity jacket.

Jesse steps out of the car.

“Hey," he barks.

The boy pivots around and Jesse hits his face with the spotlight. "What's going on?" The boy clamps his eyes shut, puts his hands up and stands still.

“Machine ate my money,” he murmurs, body still, unmoving. “Just trying to get it back.” With a fist, Jesse taps the handle, realigning the beam until it’s centered in the middle of the boy's chest.

“Put your hands down, kid, no need to hold them up,” Jesse says.

The boy slowly lowers his hands and watches Jesse suspiciously. His cheeks are thick and fleshy.

“You buying a paper?" Jesse asks.

The boy shakes his head. "Was hoping to, but it took my last dimes.”

“A bit late, isn’t it?”

The boy nods. "Coming home from work," he says. "I work at the Burger King on Orchard Lake and Telegraph."

Jesse chews on this a little, holding the boy frozen in the light. He looks jittery. His right hand shakes a little against his pant leg. Jesse is well aware of the deal these days. White cops and young black men don’t mix well. Nine times out of ten, he knows it comes down to talking like a normal person to everyone. The radio squawks once, twice, as the dispatcher burbles something Jesse doesn't quite get.

"Burger King still open?” he asks, unsure of the store’s hours.

The boy does a little side-to-side bob on his feet, peers at the ground.

"Um, my… my manager let me out early. He’s still there if you want to call him.” He glances at the paper. “Was just trying to get a copy for my moms so she could read it before work in the morning.”

Jesse walks over to the boy, leans down to look at the paper’s headline. In big black letters it reads GM to lay off 400 white collar workers at Fisher Body. He stands up straight and digs into his pocket for change.

“It ate your change?” he asks the boy. The boy nods, his eyes fixed on the stand.

Jesse punches a few dimes into the slot. With his right hand, he pulls up on the handle, then yanks it forward. He nods at the boy to take a copy.

“Sometimes you got to yank the handle up hard on these things, then while applying upward pressure on it, pull forward,” he explains. The boy folds the paper and nods at Jesse.

“Yanking on it like that so late at night might get some attention,” he says, studying the lapels of the boy’s jacket and his Burger King uniform, stained with spots of grease. “Let’s take a quick look at your ID then you can get out of here.”

The boy quickly pushes a hand into his back pocket and produces a thin wallet, from which he extracts a smudgy driver's license. An odor emanates from his clothing. Jesse lifts his head, sniffs the air between the two of them a few times, trying to decide if he smells like sweat, hamburger grease or stale french fries. He holds up his ID and shines his flashlight on it. Isaiah Kinsey. Address off Arlene Avenue, not far from Pontiac High School, three miles max from downtown. Not the worst of neighborhoods. Not the best either.

Jesse hands the license back to the boy. "Okay Isaiah, head on home. Maybe next time if the stand isn’t working, just go inside to get one. Shaking it like that is liable to wake people on the street, get them worked up, then next thing you know me or another officer have to call your parents. Don’t think either of us would be up for that.”

“Officer, I wasn’t trying to be loud,” he says. “But it ate my last change.”

Jesse holds up a hand. "I hear ya,” he whispers, “totally understand. Just easier for everyone to avoid it altogether. People around here this late at night are already a bit nervous to begin with. Know what I mean?"

The boy stands without speaking, gazing to his right where the light shines down on his Ford Pinto. The passenger door is flecked with bright orange spots of rust, as if it had been shot with paintballs. "Can’t imagine your mom or dad would appreciate a call this late, is what I’m getting at.” The boy shakes his head. "My father's asleep,” he says. “He definitely wouldn’t like it. Probably beat my ass."

Jesse looks back down at the boy's I.D., then hands it to him.

"Well, I know you’re trying to do something nice for your mom and I can appreciate that."

The boy takes his ID, pushes it into his wallet, holds the paper up a second. “Thanks for the help,” he whispers, glancing over at his car. “Okay if I head home? Had to work a double, just really tired.”

Jesse stands quietly, sizing the boy up. Short, wide shoulders, dark hair cut close to his scalp. An athlete of some sort. He's got the shoulders for football, maybe the length for basketball. Finally, Jesse says, “Go on, take off. Be safe.”

The boy walks to his car, steps in, starts it up and begins gunning the engine. Black and gray smoke huffs from his tail pipe and swirls in the parking lot light. A section of rusty fender flaps against the wheel well. Jesse makes a circular motion with his hand and yells to the kid to open his window, but because of the bubbling hack of the exhaust system and the fender vibration, he can’t hear him. Jesse shines his flashlight into the Pinto. The boy cranks the window down and looks up at him.

"Get your exhaust fixed," Jesse shouts. "Foil tape is cheap and easy…bound to get a ticket for the noise.”

The boy nods, raises a hand, respectfully acknowledging Jesse, then rolls the window up and putters out of the parking lot. His car huffs and coughs all the way down Woodward, the white smoke spiraling from the exhaust in long tendrils. Finally, his taillights disappear into the dark night.

Kids, Jesse thinks, shrinking back into his seat. He wonders what the boy's father will say when his son comes in late, reeking of hamburger grease, acting edgy. Maybe he’ll just be happy that he made it home, put an arm around his shoulders, give him a fatherly squeeze. He might clap his boy on the shoulder, say, “turn off the lights before you come up,” then head to bed. Or they talk for a few minutes, make plans to go fishing the next morning, or buy tickets to watch another Lions loss, where he might slip his son a beer during the third quarter. Or his mother, dressed in a robe that’s frayed at the elbows, stands waiting in the kitchen with her arms crossed next to his father, her body tense with anger. When he strolls through the garage door in his grease-spattered uniform, the twinge of anger lifts as she leans in close to kiss his cheek goodnight and whisper in his ear, “About time, had me worried.” What if they just don’t care or notice when he comes home? Jesse shakes his head, presses the gas pedal a few times and tries to ferry the thought from his mind. No matter how apathetic some parents might be, instinct compels them to love, whether they want to admit to it or not. Indifference, at least in Jesse’s mind, isn’t possible.

He releases a mouthful of air and glances behind him before backing out.

What if.

Lately he's been measuring his existence by the accumulation of what ifs in his life — what if his mother hadn’t left him and his father before he turned two; what if he hadn't worked in the shop on Saturdays; what if he hadn't attended college or the police academy; what if he took over his father's business; what if he'd been closer to the old man. Some days he finds it difficult to attach meaning to the questions or unscramble the snarled relationship that he and his father had pieced together before he died. Most times it’s easier not to think about it. Besides, he's got his job, the money his father left him and the cabin up north, and that's what counts the most.

He glances into his rear-view mirror, shifts the car in gear, drives out of the parking lot and continues with his patrol.

Tool & Die

Excerpt from Cut River Redemption

Gary Erwin

"This piece is based on an actual event when I was 20—a drug deal gone bad that resulted in a close friend's high school buddy getting shot four times and run over as he attempted to purchase a large quantity of coke. And while this piece uses this incident as a springboard for the rest of the novel, it addresses a period (mid to late 1980s) when cocaine and crack had a full grip on our cities and urban environments, which made the prospect of serving as a cop a massive undertaking. As a result, Jesse's perspective about people and the human condition shifts dramatically as he becomes more jaded and melancholic over the reasons he joined the force."

Gary James Erwin's work has appeared in a number of journals over the years—The Sun, Santa Fe Literary Review, Red Cedar Review, 3288 Review, The MacGuffin, Clockhouse and Third Wednesday to name a few. He has received several Pushcart Prize nominations and had a story anthologized in The PrePress Awards Volume II: Michigan Voices. His book of short stories, Trail Crossing Sixteen Counties, was published in 2019 by Adelaide Books (https://amzn.to/2XW44Fh). The piece included here is an excerpt from his novel in progress, Cut River Redemption. He's also working on a new collection titled The Injury List. He lives with his family in Clarkston, Michigan.

Why is this piece your Trace Fossil?