The sealed pink donut box on the conference room table was a harbinger of doom and everyone knew it, especially Jim Muncie who had been upsized, downsized, and resized so often in his forty-year engineering career that he felt like a recycled Gumby. He peered through the box’s clear cellophane window. Assorted shapes peered back. He snuck out a maple bar, bit into its soft center, and set to work pulverizing its gritty frosting.
A minute later, Muncie’s boss Kitty entered the room, sat down, and read the Excavate Corporation’s downsizing announcement in a somber voice. People shifted uneasily in their seats and poked at cell phones. As a team they designed the mouth for John Henry, Excavate’s flagship tunneling machine, and it was their third layoff in two years, despite increasing sales and profits.
Kitty finished up and invited questions, ignoring the muttering.
“What is disruption?” someone asked.
“Good question,” said Kitty. “Disruption is when something happens that changes everything, like when Dyson built his centrifuge vacuum.”
“I’m disrupting now,” a voice yelled and the room burst with laughter.
Muncie stood up. He was the team’s technical leader and well respected.
“C’mon. Don’t shoot the messenger. Disruption happens when the past becomes obsolete. We know all about that, don’t we?” Heads nodded and the room quieted and Kitty thanked him.
After the meeting, Muncie returned to his desk and commiserated with his teammates. A young father was panicked about medical cuts, and a newly hired technician was already looking for a new job. Muncie couldn’t help but lament Excavate’s greed too. He was sick of trying to sugarcoat everything. Later, driving home for the weekend, he fretted and glanced in his rearview mirror at a black Tesla approaching too quickly. As it zoomed past, he imagined pelting its tinted window with hundreds of gooey chocolate donuts and felt oddly pleased.
Muncie’s wife Rona dug her boxcutter into the bag of potting soil and peeled away its plastic skin. She sighed uneasily and began to pack dirt around her new daisies, pansies, and geraniums. A minute earlier Muncie had groaned and clutched his back and gone inside for some Advil. She was a charge nurse and knew pain, and could not forget his mini-stroke from a year ago. She knew he worried about it, too. She wished he would slow down. Last night when she had suggested retirement, he rebuffed for trying to “preserve” him.
And what’s so wrong with that? she had asked.
Muncie returned with a glass of water for Rona and she drank it. The morning sun and spring air lifted her spirits. They set to work.
“John Henry is tunneling under a lake in Norway,” said Muncie, troweling open a hole. “It’s a first, a new world record. What’s it like over there?”
“It’s cold is what it is,” said Rona, inserting a flower.
“Lutz was on the news and said that the fjords are calm and crystal clear. No wind.”
“Swell,” said Rona. She hated Mike Lutz, Muncie and Kitty’s self-aggrandizing boss, who liked to keep her talented husband on a string.
“Do you think this one will open up?” asked Muncie, picking at a tight geranium bud.
“Absolutely,” said Rona. “It’s not weak. It’s resting.”
They continued to talk and inspect and plant. They finished and Muncie tidied up as Rona watered.
“Look at this beauty,” she exclaimed as a glistening aura settled over her flowers.
Muncie was shaking out gloves and didn’t respond.
She didn’t press him. His stroke recovery had been quick and the subsequent changes subtle—the dreamy impulsiveness and mild confusion. At his last doctor visit, they learned about the tiny pin-prick strokes that can accumulate and clog the brain, presenting an ongoing risk. The stroke had not changed Muncie’s deep-set eyes and calm intelligence, and yet Rona remained uneasy.
He was a brilliant engineer with several metallurgy patents. But Excavate, Rona knew, was killing him.
That evening they dined outside and lingered into the gloaming drinking wine. Muncie reminisced about the smell of sheet metal and the sound of air blowers and the beauty of tolerances and recalled a trip to Brazil where he had taught a young engineer how to assess John Henry’s health by listening to an engine drone. The work world had changed, but he still knew what a day held, even if it was often disappointment.
Rona quietly listened, then urged him to think of his age and health and children and grandchildren. He had succeeded and it was time to come home.
“But work is my rhythm, my life,” said Muncie. “I still have something to give. Algorithms. Analysis. Slope and sine.” He sliced the air with the edge of his hand.
“But your brain could be dying and we wouldn’t know until you started speaking in tongues,” blurted Rona.
Muncie looked away. “Don’t do that,” he said. “Fear is a poor motivator.”
“Forget I said it,” said Rona. She shivered and looked up at the black sky. Distant airplanes approached in familiar flight patterns, their blinking lights illuminating space and time. Muncie lit an overhead heater and an insolent raccoon scampered across the yard.
“I’ll think about it,” he said. “I’ll cut back to four days.”
“It’s a beginning,” said Rona.
“I need a sign,” he said. “Everyone says there will be a sign.”
The next Monday at Excavate was hectic. Muncie’s inbox was stuffed, Kitty wanted to meet, and a flashing production alert required his immediate attention. Field tests had shown that John Henry’s titanium teeth were deteriorating more quickly than usual. The Hydro Gear, a new part intended to control temperature, might be failing. Could Muncie take a look?
Muncie opened files and fumed, zooming in and out of 3-D drawings, checking numbers and settings. The Hydro guys were trouble, well known for spreading ill will beyond their borders. He checked a nozzle specification. Its temperature setting was too high, so he emailed the chief engineer. A basic math error. Unforgivable.
An hour later, he was eating lunch when a factory foreman stopped by and asked, “Have you heard the news?”
“What?” asked Muncie, warily.
“Walt Thomas in Service Engineering. People are saying his kid Ethan died in a rock-climbing accident. It’s awful.”
Muncie checked his inbox. Excavate’s sympathy email had just arrived. He searched the Internet for more information and read in horror that on Saturday at 6:30 PM, a seventeen-year-old boy had fallen three hundred feet on Tanner Ridge in the Cascade Range and died. The boy’s partner, a girl, had climbed down to the body and spent the night, before rappelling out the next morning.
Muncie shuddered and tried to imagine how Walt felt. They shared a bond from past projects but weren’t close friends. He had met Ethan once, years ago, at an Eagles pancake breakfast, a little tow-headed guy with a toothy grin, smart and funny. He began to choke up. A few climbing blogs described Tanner Ridge as a relatively straight-forward sport climb; others warned of its length—twenty-seven random pitches that traversed several loose shale fields. He opened Google Earth and zoomed into Tanner Ridge. Tiny climbers were reaching and rising, their pixelated arms and legs merged with the thing they wished to conquer. He flexed his index finger and rotated the mouse wheel and watched the ridge silently shrink into the earth’s curve and then into deep space.
“Something happened up there,” said Muncie that evening. “They didn’t give any details.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Rona said. “The boy is dead. Walt and his family must be devastated.”
“I know, but something happened.”
“It’s not your business, Jim.”
“It’s the idea of it. Two kids alone on a dark mountain. One of them dead. I can’t imagine it.”
“You can’t fix it. Leave it to the family.”
“Don’t you want to know what happened?”
“I really don’t.”
That night Muncie studied up on rock climbing and the hundreds of safety variables that come into play. He read about the fifty ways someone can die rappelling. He learned that all mountain climbing accidents are recorded in a national journal. An idea formed. He opened a computer file and added links, snips, and references to read later, and began to outline diagrams and patterns in his head. He needed to know what had happened, and maybe others did, too.
The next Monday, Excavate gave employees their notice. Muncie lost three people, ten percent of his team. Kitty sent out a regretful email saying she had tried to keep everyone but couldn’t. Becky, one of the victims, decided to retire early. When her card came around a few days later, Muncie wrote, “Have a great time on your new adventure,” as if being sixty, widowed, and taking care of an aging parent was something rare and wonderful. Later, at a staff meeting, Kitty brought a lemon sheet cake and thanked Becky for her years of service. After the meeting, Muncie and Becky stayed behind and talked.
“What’s it like?” asked Muncie, nibbling sugar crust off his fork. “Retiring.”
“I hate being forced into it,” said Becky. “And why? I’m a rock star. You should see my performance reviews.”
Muncie felt for her. She worked hard and was good people. He eyed the mostly uneaten cake.
“All mine,” said Becky, shooing him away. He smiled at her and she began to tremble and cry and tug at a thin necklace. Then she wiped her tears and pointed at a poster that read At Excavate People Are Our Most Important Asset.
“Did you ever notice the word ‘ass’ in asset?” she asked.
“Let’s have more cake,” suggested Muncie.
After the layoffs, Muncie’s workload increased and his back pain worsened. He talked to Kitty. A four-day week was out of the question. He would have to suck it up.
To quell his frustration, Muncie leaned into his rock-climbing investigation. During breaks at work and evenings at home, he took more notes, watched videos, read chat rooms, and considered online classes. He learned about body position, strength, exertion, and friction. He drew charts, complete with timelines, wind velocity, temperature, sunrise, and sunset data, all connected with arrows. He visited a gym to learn about harnesses and gear, and watched climbers, some mere toddlers, scramble up predetermined paths, each undulating wall a separate journey. He inspected the colorful oddly-shaped handholds and imagined eating them. His latest theory was that Ethan had been in a hurry and missed a safety step, an idea he shared with Rona, who had given up hectoring him about retirement.
“My data shows that the weather conditions were good, although the afternoon was hot,” he said. “People have commented that Tanner Ridge is a deceptively long climb. He may have been tired and come off his rope.”
“What does that mean?” asked Rona.
“It’s a failsafe. A climber knots the end of his rope so that it will catch in his harness if his brake fails. Experienced climbers sometimes avoid the knot, because it can dangle and catch on rocks and slow them down.” He drew Rona a picture.
“Why would you want to know if something horrible happened?” asked Rona.
“I’m just trying to make sense of it,” said Muncie. “It’s just a theory.”
“For heaven’s sake,” sighed Rona.
Muncie was at an impasse. Research was context but not fact. To go further, he would need more detailed insight and information about the fateful day on Tanner Ridge.
Early the next week, Muncie made sure to run into Walt Thomas in the restroom. The two men stood side by side washing hands and staring into the mirror.
“I’m really sorry about Ethan,” said Muncie, gently testing Walt’s frame of mind.
Walt shrugged. “At least he went out doing what he loved.”
“I’m not even going to ask how you’re doing,” said Muncie. “I’m just real real sorry.”
“Thanks, Jim,” said Walt.
Muncie ripped a paper towel from the dispenser and wiped his hands.
“Do you mind my asking if he was going up or coming down?”
Walt looked confused. “Does it matter?”
“Just curious. I read more accidents happen coming down. It’s counterintuitive.”
“They were rappelling, according to Jessi.”
“Yeah,” said Walt. “She was above and couldn’t see much. He just went down. Look Jim, I gotta go. Thanks for asking up on me.”
“No problem,” said Muncie. “Let’s get together sometime.”
Muncie walked back to his desk, his head bursting with ideas. Ethan was descending from a point well below the girl. He was leading the climb. Was he more experienced or had she deferred the lead to him? Who was Jessi? Who was she to Ethan?
At home that evening, Muncie checked his Facebook feed and saw Walt’s name as a suggested friend. He clicked invite. Walt’s acceptance came back almost instantly. He stared at his computer. He immediately felt more connected to Walt than he ever had at work. He checked Walt’s newsfeed but didn’t see anything about Ethan. He clicked around and found Ethan’s Facebook page and read a few memorial messages, scanning names. He clicked Jessi Delgado and discovered she was Ethan’s classmate, a year older, a thin girl with black hair and wraparound sunglasses. She studied theater at a nearby college.
After an hour of nonstop clicking, Muncie shut down his computer and headed upstairs. He crawled into bed, draped his arm over Rona’s waist, and listened to her breathe. He still loved her pragmatic Irish disposition and thick red hair. Had Ethan been in love with Jessi? It was one of the fifty ways to die. The distracted lovestruck climber is fearless.
The next day at a John Henry design meeting, a Hydro engineer, a young MIT grad, handed Muncie a clear resin cube. Encased inside were three cracked, discolored titanium teeth. “Where did you get these,” asked Muncie.
“We pulled them out of Norway,” said the Hydro engineer. “Check it out. You’ve got a fatigue problem.”
“Do I?” asked Muncie handing back the cube.
“I’ll send it over when I’m done,” said the Hydro engineer.
“You do that,” said Muncie.
Later that afternoon, Kitty summoned Muncie to her office. She and Mike Lutz were examining the cube. “Our metal spec is wrong according to Hydro,” said Lutz, scowling. “They’ve put in a finding. We may have to do a recall. It’s not good.”
Muncie ignored Lutz. Kitty looked worried. He knew what came next, a root cause analysis. He had played this game before.
“I know you guys aren’t engineers, but see that,” said Muncie, pointing at a tooth. “That pearl color is caused by heat. The tooth is titanium, but it isn’t indestructible. Hydro is gaming us.”
Lutz and Kitty passed the cube back and forth, trying to divine its meaning.
“I’m too old for this,” said Muncie, wearily. “Our metal tests are in the vault, along with our tolerance specs. Bring on the analysts.”
“Thanks, Jim,” said Kitty, relieved. “I’m counting on you.”
The next Saturday morning, Walt Thomas’s first Facebook post about Ethan appeared. The photos, a grade school portrait, some dice, a silver document seal, and a shot of Ethan atop a summit, were accompanied by a long note that began, Hi Ethan.
Muncie took a deep breath and decided to read the post later. For the rest of the day, he went about his weekend errands but was distracted. At the tire store, he answered, “Fine” when asked for his name. At the golf range, he knocked slice after slice into the netting. At the grocery store, he bought whole Dungeness crab, Rona’s favorite, and forgot sourdough bread, her second favorite. Later, during dinner, as the shell pile grew, he lost his appetite and abruptly left the table. Finally, at 2 AM, after tossing and turning for hours, he got up and read Walt’s words.
Hi Ethan, Dad here. Your Grandmother came over last night for dinner and brought your favorite meat ball dish. I still remember the first time I mashed up one of those babies for you when you were a toddler. Mom said they would be too spicy, but you lit up like a pumpkin. Grandma isn’t doing very well, so we got out some of your old photo albums for a look-see. That silver seal is from your Jr. High School diploma. She asked me to post a photo, since you missed your high school graduation. That climbing shot is from Mt. Pintaro, but you know that. You texted me as soon as you summited. It was your first really difficult climb. Later you said Jessi had taken the picture. I laughed when I saw it, because I know how much you liked her and wanted to look cool. It’s the red bandanna. Jessi is home from college and stopped by. We played Yahtzee. She said she really did like you. Timing is everything. Sometimes I wish you hadn’t gone out that day. Mom is doing okay, all things considered. We gave Patrick your gear. I know you would want him to have it. His family doesn’t have much money. I think about you all the time and miss you son. Talk more soon. Love, Dad.
Eighty-seven people had responded with likes, happy faces, hearts, and other emoticons. Nobody had commented. Threads of sadness encircled Muncie’s heart. He was ashamed for being obsessed, for treading on Walt’s tragedy, and for thinking he had the right to tell Ethan’s story. He touched Like and the counter incremented by one. He wondered if Walt would see his name. When he crawled back into bed, Rona asked how he was feeling, and he whispered, “Miserable.”
The next week on Tuesday, Muncie returned from lunch to a pink Post-it stuck to his computer monitor. Kitty was alone in her office, distressed. The analysts couldn’t find a legally required metals test.
Muncie laughed. “I’d never mess up something like that.”
“It’s not there, Jim,” said Kitty gravely. “They’ve searched all the backups and logs. They sat me down and showed me. We made a mistake.”
Something pinched at Muncie as his rule-bound disposition, his intellect, and creative subconscious folded in on each other. First Walt’s post and now this. He knew the conversation would end with Kitty placing him on administrative leave, pending a formal investigation.
“Kitty, how long have we worked together?” asked Muncie.
“Over seven years.”
“Have I or my team ever tried to cover up anything?”
“Heavens, no. But I can’t change what I’ve seen or haven’t seen with my own eyes.”
“What about computer forensics? Have you gotten them involved?”
“No. But Jim, it’s not there…”
“Do your job for Christ’s sake,” yelled Muncie. “I’m sick. I’m tired. I’ve given everything to this program. Your and Lutz’s heads are so far up corporate’s ass that you’ve forgotten how to be for your people.”
“You can’t talk to me like that,” said Kitty, stunned.
“I can and did,” said Muncie, standing up and yanking the leave paperwork from her hands. He scanned the words. His pay and benefits were safe. It was his reputation and dignity that were in jeopardy.
He slept in on Wednesday, peeking out at Rona from beneath the sheets as she worked her way around the bedroom, dressing in scrubs, the top first and the bottoms second, light makeup, hair, and jewelry, always modest earrings. On her way out, she kissed him and told him to get up and he did, after which he went downstairs, took his morning pills, and made a full pot of coffee instead of the usual half.
The two weeks would pass quickly, and he hated the idea of strangers picking through his process, judging his abilities, looking for shortcuts. He never took shortcuts, but who could see that from a distance?
Around noon he went outside, pulled his truck out of the garage, and washed it. He enjoyed feeling his body in the sun, doing something physical, the rhythmic motion of his hands, watching water bead and suds expand, do their job. His back felt better, less stiff.
He considered Jessi and the love theory. She would be easy to find. It was early September and sunny. She would be at college, sitting alone in the grass, reading. He would approach and introduce himself as she shielded her eyes. He would squat and apologize for the intrusion and win her trust and express his sorrow and ask questions. She would sense his wisdom and explain how she and Ethan had worked as a team, moving up and down the rough surfaces, challenging gravity. She would stop talking and he would ask about Ethan’s mood, his focus, whether he had slept well the night before, and if he had been hydrated. And he would ask about the dark night and her vigil and if she had shifted Ethan’s body and if there had been blood or love and if she had comforted him and how she had kept her wits. He would assess their differences, his and hers, their views of the world, and listen for a thin gasp or restrained sob, a sign that Ethan had mattered to her in a more profound way.
Of course, he could not visit Jessi. It was too late and too wrong.
He lurked on Facebook, reading Walt’s new posts and examining more photos: Father’s Day cards, a treehouse. He wondered whether Walt’s séance-like messages were helping pull Ethan close or let him go. In the end, Muncie took solace in his ability to read all the words without wanting to die himself.
On Wednesday of the second week of his leave, Muncie and the Excavate investigator met and talked in a cell-like room inside the Excavate factory. Afterward, Muncie signed his statement on an iPad with his index finger, which felt idiotic. On his way home, he stopped by his doctor’s office to discuss the results of a new brain scan. There were no signs of a mini-stroke, but he saw the scar, a grainy gray skein, the site of his injury. He didn’t understand how the brain could have no feeling. He was glad he was an engineer instead of a doctor.
That night he and Rona recalculated their nest egg. Their investments were stable, and his pension would offset some of his income loss. Rona suggested he think about a part time job, maybe do some volunteering. His overactive imagination needed focus. And would he please go to physical therapy and lay off the donuts. When the negotiation ended, they broke out champagne and celebrated.
The Sunday before Muncie returned to Excavate, a newsfeed reported that John Henry had broken through the surface in Norway. Muncie imagined the ground heaving and a mouth appearing, its teeth filled with dirt and bugs. He didn’t read the rest. He didn’t care about the world record.
Monday again. Muncie met with Lutz and Kitty in her office. The investigator’s thick report was laying on her desk. She offered Muncie a croissant and he pulled it into pieces and stuffed it into his mouth. Lutz didn’t want anything. He never ate.
The investigator had found forensic evidence in Muncie’s favor: documented references to the missing metal tests and tolerance specs that Muncie swore to. The computer files had been tampered with. Between the finding and Muncie’s superlative work record, the investigator concluded that the required report had clearly existed in the past. Neither Lutz nor Kitty could say who had tampered, but another investigation was underway.
“It’s great news, Jim,” said Kitty hugging him.
“I knew you were in the clear, Jim,” said Lutz, grinning. “You’re the best.”
“And if the investigation had come back against me?” asked Muncie. “Would you have kept fighting?”
“Of course,” said Kitty and Lutz in unison.
After the meeting ended, Muncie walked out to the factory. Its cathedral-like presence felt timeless. No matter who owned it or what it produced or how many times it was retooled, it endured.
Inside the massive building, Muncie donned a hard hat, yellow vest, and safety glasses and followed the dry ozone-laden air to the John Henry build area, an expanse twice the size of a football field. He watched a John Henry build-crew gesture to each other, kabuki-like, inside a large metal cylinder, their pressurized hoses hissing. An overhead crane slid through the air, transferring parts and casting shadows over the people, robots, and forklifts below. Whistles blew, lights flashed, and voices yelled. There was a time when he had loved the feeling of the factory, its productivity and usefulness. That was before the automation and computers came. Back then he knew everyone’s name. Not anymore. Nobody stayed long enough.
Muncie continued to walk. He located a lab where he had once tested air handlers. Inside, white-coated technicians were huddled around a table watching a 3-D printer guide a white thread onto a slowly spinning shape.
“What’s that?” asked Muncie.
“A lemon,” said one of the technicians, looking up.
“A lemon?” Muncie squinted at the oval. Bumps were forming. “That’s not a lemon.”
“It’s a test. Don’t get so bugged,” said a technician.
“I’m not bugged,” said Muncie, “Just astonished. A freaking lemon.”
As the lemon formed and grew, Muncie told the technicians about designing parts and building machines and failing and succeeding and how honoring his responsibilities had given his life meaning.
When he got home that night, Rona asked if he was still sure about his decision. He was.
Muncie retired from the Excavate Corporation on a Thursday. He sent an email to Kitty and walked a printed copy out to the factory service center, the only place in the entire facility where he could talk to a live person about ending his career. The woman read his letter and said, “Forty years. Wow, that’s a long time. I bet your boss will be throwing you a heck of a party.”
“Nope,” said Muncie. He would celebrate at home with Rona and his family. The upcoming weeks, months, and years would be challenging, but he was ready.
One Saturday afternoon in mid-October, Muncie went for a drive east, out I-90 up the pass. It was the cusp of winter, a gray filmy day that slowly brightened into a shiny continuum of rugged white peaks. At mile marker 407, he pulled his truck off the freeway and bounced four miles up a gravel road, where he parked, leapt over an offseason barrier, and hiked up a trail to the Tanner Ridge base camp. He set down his knapsack, drank some water, and looked up. It was a month since his retirement and five since Ethan’s accident.
At first glance, the ridge surprised him. Its lower levels switched back and forth with inviting regularity, suggesting an easy path forward. He walked around and inspected the rock face from different angles. Higher up, walls converged and disappeared into the sky. He imagined a thin rope falling, hitting the ground, coiling back on itself, freed of its owner. He wondered, from what height had Ethan fallen? According to the search and rescue reports, the boy had not suffered.
Muncie sat down at a picnic table, opened his knapsack, and removed two cube-shaped white boxes. He opened the first and flattened its sides, revealing a huge chocolate cupcake.
Walt Thomas arrived soon after, right on time.
Muncie handed him the second box, which contained an identical cupcake. Rona had done a nice job.
“I never thought I would want to come up here again, but you convinced me,” said Walt.
“It made sense,” said Muncie.
“I see we’re ready.”
“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
“I used to feel that way,” said Walt. “But I wasn’t ready for what happened to Ethan.”
“He knew what he was doing, didn’t he?” asked Muncie.
“Yes,” said Walt. “He did.”
They ate Muncie’s cupcake first, pulling it apart, sucking goo off their fingers, scattering crumbs everywhere. Then they ate Ethan’s cupcake and reminisced and laughed and praised courage and took in the sky and ignored time and waited for a wind to blow in Norway.
John Maki lives, writes, and works in Seattle, Washington. He has published short stories in Eastern Iowa Review, Sixfold, and Jam Tarts Magazine. in 2016 his work, The Opposite of Lovesick, won the Desi Writers Workshop international short story contest. John holds a BA in English and Theater from Lewis and Clark College and studies writing at Seattle’s Hugo House. When not chasing a grandchild, he might be cooking for friends, enjoying a musical, listening to Jazz, or walking along the Oregon coast. See more at www.makihome.us
Jury S. Judge is an internationally published artist, photographer, writer, poet, and political cartoonist. Judge’s Astronomy Comedy cartoons are also published in Lowell Observatory’s quarterly publication, The Lowell Observer. Jury S. Judge has been interviewed on the television news program, NAZ Today for their work as a political cartoonist. Judge’s artwork has been widely featured in literary magazines such as Dodging The Rain, The Tishman Review, Amsterdam Quarterly, Open Minds Quartely, Blue Moon Review, and The Ignatian Literary Journal. Judge graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BFA from the University of Houston-Clear Lake in 2014.