My dad told me they took the world apart, piece by piece. When they drove by in their sinister-looking trucks, I would imagine portions of sky flowing through the rusty pipes, maybe a part of my backyard in one of those buxom tanks. The back of those trucks looks ruptured, the pipes and tanks like exposed organs digesting pieces of my house, my street, my world.
The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.
—1 Corinthians 15:26
The men were often bruised with smudge. Dad said they lived in furnaces and slept in a bed of ash. I would recoil from these poor fellows as they stopped in for water and smokes. “Smoke’s like water to ’em,” dad would say as their heavy boots squeaked out the door. “Watcha think’s in that tank, Birdy?” I’d look up and he’d smile knowingly.
On the way home, we’d pass a ditch, or a damaged house with a portion of the roof missing, and I’d say it before he did: “That’s what’s in the tank, dad. The Dismantlers did it.” A somber nod. My heart would race ahead of the vehicle to our home, our roof, to mom. But we’d come home and everything remained intact. “The Dismantlers can’t get us, Birdy, because we know who they are; we’re onto ’em.” He’d tap his temple and smile wryly.
A house will mutter to itself at night. Wood will settle. Counters will wrap. Drains clear like throats. Those sounds reminded me every night that the Dismantlers knew who we were too. I’d wake up and make sure my room was in one piece.
It happened one day that our dog Sallinger didn’t come home. After three days, my dad finally admitted that the Dismantlers had gotten him. With those words, he poured me full of panic, which spilled over into increasingly erratic behavior. I became obsessed with all forms of decay. I would search out every crack and fissure in our walls. I would creep intrepidly into the cellar and peer into our boiler room, cataloging mold and rust. Spots on the carpet were a special treat for me because of mom’s compulsive cleaning habits. My obsession gradually transferred to organic matter. Fruit and vegetables were fertile ground for my antics, but I soon took notice of graying hairs, liver spots, burst capillaries, vanishing hairlines, fading tattoos, crow’s feet.
The next time they walked into the store, I swallowed hard and bellowed, “Give Sallinger back, you bastards!” My dad sheepishly ushered them out of the store, placating them with Coke and cigarettes. I watched them through the dusty window, which seemed to be sprouting fresh cracks even as they departed. One of them caught my eye, winked, and exhaled a thick plume of smoke like a locomotive, and rolled deftly out of the window’s frame. I stared at the wretched machinery on the back of the truck—the decaying pipes; the tanks housing bits of my house; the chambers that held bits of dad’s hair, pieces of his skin, color from the eagle on his sagging shoulder. I watched the cylindrical levers that pulled it all away from me. The lever that would soon take my mom.
Dad said she had something growing inside of her, but I knew he was lying. She had things missing. By turns, she lost her hair, her color, her chest. Her bones seemed to outgrow her skin. One day, dad said she was gone, and he scooped me up and stifled his shrieks in my small chest.
When we finally went back to the store, it was a while before they came back. They’d taken so much I almost wondered if they were satisfied. But then one day the Dismantler’s truck lurched into view. Three of them walked in, smelling like they’d spent the night in a sewer. A bald one with a deep voice nodded at me, “Hey, Burt.” Then he turned to dad, “I’m so sorry, Bill. We just heard.” He put his incinerated hand on dad’s shoulder, led him quietly out the door. They stood outside talking quietly. One of them handed dad a cigarette, and he began to look like another piece of smoking machinery beside them. In that moment, I knew he’d run until the rust spread over him just like it did over those pipes in the cellar, until the cracks ran like rivers on a map across the expanse of his flesh, until the claws at the edge of his eyes grew like cobwebs in corners. That was when I realized I couldn’t blame the Dismantlers anymore.
Now I know better. Now I know the Dismantlers are just regular workmen, with oil on their hands and hollow machinery on their trucks. Now I leave my feeble house, with its creaking doors, groaning floors, and rotted siding, and run across a balding lawn to the fractured asphalt of my baking street, with the subterranean drone of a river of sewage flowing beneath me. I look up at the sky, essentially nothing more than a gaping hole, as if some colossal monstrosity tore the roof off of our world. But of course it’s much less glamorous than that.
Now I know the Dismantlers aren’t real. You’ll never believe how much I miss them.
Cover image by Matt Hawthorne.