“B.I.W. Boys” by Katherine Cart follows three Bucksport boys—Samual, Quiller and Jacob—who are all hired out of high school to work at the iron works in nearby Bellport. The B.I.W. boys grow into their idea of men throughout the pandemic, as their understanding of themselves and the others shifts. Cart’s voice and stream-of-conscious style sweeps you up and barrels you along into the yawning vacuum at the end.
“B.I.W. boys!” Jacob had cried when he and Quiller and Samual all got hired on at Bellport Iron Works.
The way Quiller had curled his peach-fuzzed lip, like what the fuck is it that you’re saying when you’re saying B.I.W., when you’re saying boys, really? shut Jacob up.
Quiller had two inches on the shoulders of Samual and Jacob by then. He wielded both inches like hundred dollar bills. Those three had been born and grown in a far north coastal place. All that changed each year were the seasons. One winter as seventh grade kids they had hunted mallards with Jacob’s father and it wasn’t so much seeing the living worry bleed out of the birdshot holes that grew those boys up, but the fact that Jacob’s father who was not a happy man had decided it was time for them to be holding guns and growing up.
They grew up into people with jobs.
It was Samual’s mother who had cheered, “B.I.W. boys!” when Samual told her he got hired on. A confused pride wrapped up in her words because she’d wanted Samual to go to the college in the neighboring town, but she’d known since Samual was fifteen and bought a real leather jacket at the Goodwill because Quiller and then Jacob had bought one at the J.C. Penny that Samual would do what Quiller and Jacob did when it came to life plans at eighteen. Like Samual was a piece of wood just waiting on the tide to take him. She told herself that he’d happy at B.I.W. at least for a while. So in their modest and clean kitchen, she scraped out the worry and only let Sammy hear the pride in how she cried B.I.W. boys!
Those three, when they remembered kidhood in later years, remembered Samual’s mom’s kitchen with the pink-checked curtains over the metal sink, a kitchen where it was okay to be loved.
So they moved towns down the coast to Bellport. They went on Craigslist and found three separate rooms in three separate apartments. It was true that Jacob had figured they would live together in a three-bedroom like brothers but Quiller had decided that they were men now and men should live with the decency of strangers. They rented in the same cluster of working streets.
Most of the buildings were old white-washed cod and whaling money homes, grand like a grandmother in her oldest jewelry, now subdivided and held together by plasterboard. The rest were new, beige, vinyl-sided triplexes with cheap insulation. Every single building filled by working people that had followed other people or jobs or both to that brackish place where money was made on the water’s edge.
If anybody had followed anybody to Bellport it was Jacob and Samual following Quiller. Or maybe just Jacob following Quiller. And Samual, who, because of that nice pink-checked kitchen and a dead kid sister, never really had much urgency to do anything but be with his buds, to perpetuate the fact of that childhood triad. Samual didn’t think too critically and wasn’t unhappy.
It was quick-on-his-feet Quiller with the wide shoulders and the face girls and guys liked to look at who never seemed like he needed anybody. Who would have looked you in the eye, even at eighteen, and said: I’ve had just the right amount of bumps in my road, you know? It was Quiller, who, if there had ever been a ringleader—though they would swear equality— would have been it. But maybe this was because he had never been to church and the idea of listening to an authority without asking why seemed a little weirder. Or maybe it wasn’t that but was because his mom and dad had not beat him with a belt or hands or anything, but had also made him out to be a sort of dog that walked on two legs with its pink dick out. So he had a deep urgency for getting far, getting ahead, getting there first, and doing what he could to prove he wasn’t a dog with its dick out. And besides that, his next younger brother was six years younger, so Quiller was, and would be all his life, at once somewhat like a precocious only-child who nobody had ever pinched the modesty into and an older sibling so used to leading he never once questioned why or how, which is one version of confidence people like.
Samual and Jacob on the other hand, were neither the oldest nor had they quit going to church until they moved out of Bucksport downcoast to Bellport, and sometimes even then Samual wandered over to the old granite St. Matthews on Front Street, and slipped inside if he had a Sunday off, to feel the hard pews on his spine.
In any case, they now all lived in an industrious little place called Bellport, a few counties west from where they’d grown up, and worked at the old ship building establishment, Bellport Iron Works. Quiller and Samual had done better in high school than Jacob and instead of taking a remedial math course like Jacob had, had taken a welding course together. Perhaps it was for this reason that they were hired on as G2 Shipfitters at $17.95 hourly while Jacob was hired on as a G2 Maintenance Custodian at $13.95 hourly.
Good thing they had that one class to point to, so Samual being the nice guy of the pink-checked kitchen could say, “Crazy how one little thing like that can decide another little thing like that.” He lifted his beer to drink but said first, “Like dominoes man, but fuck I’m glad we’re all here,” and then finished the beer and called to the red-headed server who would never go on a date with any of them for she didn’t date boys and especially not B.I.W. boys.
It was nice of Samual to say those things to Jacob but maybe saying the part about the dominoes rang a little too true in a way that Jacob had never verbalized before but had had a crawling suspicion about for a while. He did have the sense that something had gone wrong in him a long time ago and he was mad about it without knowing quite what to be mad about, which is a dangerous thing, like a sickness you don’t know how to beat.
But they worked their jobs and they made money and sometimes got laid in their parentless apartments where before them shipwrights and whalers and the children of the wealthy cod fleet owners of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had lived, fucked, bled, died, pissed and wept for love. Those three, especially Samual, liked to share stories about the good old days from four years ago, two, last year, when they were kids still sucking the teat, for that is what childhood is called when a person is embarrassed by their own dependency.
When the pandemic hit they were working and living there in Bellport, walking in the end of the long nights from their apartments to their still shiny new jobs, going to Nelly’s Pub ‘n’ Grill quite often, meeting up and exchanging the news of the shipfitters and the custodians.
Jacob made sure those two knew that he was seeing some top secret stuff, hearing some conversations between the higher-ups, because, as he said, “Nobody cares about the fucking custodian, we can do whatever it is we like to do, we’re part of the wall.” And when Jacob said this stuff he liked saying we, liked saying that to prove to those two that he had his own crew, his own stuff, and that he was the thing, ultimately, that kept the place running, like the bottom guy always, always is.
“That’s why they have to pay us so little,” Jacob started saying, “keeps us too tired to fight back, keeps us convinced we don’t deserve anything more.” He made his voice go louder, tougher, deeper, smarter. If it was a quiet night in Nelly’s people would be watching this nineteen-year-old with the big eyebrows and thin face, a rat-looking kid, would be listening to him climb up on his horse. Could smell a pot-stirrer. Could see the fuses firing in his brain and wouldn’t that be tiring? All that anger and all you can do is fire it from one side of the skull to the other. Quiller would be by this point scoping out the bar, one eye on every face that came in and eventually he would meet his wife here but not yet, not for years, not until after Jacob was married, but Quiller would watch the crowd like he could win her if he was quicker on his feet than everyone else. He would squint at the door and nod his chin sometimes to Jacob. And Jacob always had one gray eye on Quiller, waiting to see if Quiller heard that he didn’t need him to lead him around, not anymore. And Samual, who was a nice guy, everybody said so, would really listen, and would ask well-placed questions once in a while, which Jacob would sigh and answer like it was a task to do so and what was this pansy asking about detergents for.
When the pandemic hit all of the other B.I.W. guys and the few women there only had a week or so off, hunkered down, before they all were trucking in to get back to welding and cutting and shaping and knocking and mopping for the ships they worked on were for ballistic and defensive purposes and so were of an essential sort. It was easy, at first, to get everyone to wear masks when a mask was still a mask, for they already wore masks, to guard against the hot metal dust, the aerosols, varnishes, ammonium chloride, deep cold. So they adjusted to a new way of working and waited for the sickness to come up from the cities to them. Quiller, Jacob and Samual went about their workdays. They trudged in through the bitter wet of March. All quiet, everyone so still. Aware all of a sudden of that big empty stage of a street they walked on to the shipyard. Things echoed. It was a working neighborhood in the winter. The tourists stayed away until the warm season.
For a while Quiller, Jacob and Samual, who had improbably all ended up on the same shift, would meet up along the way. For a while, it was just as it had been when they were Bucksport boys, ripping on bicycles, when Samual cruised past Randall and Rozack streets and was joined there by Quiller and then those two would continue on and scoop Jacob at shitty Willough Corner Park and they would cruise on to school, arriving in all manner of weather, but arriving together and free from the orchestration of the bus.
Perhaps it was the fact that Jacob was the last one to the trio that switched something to high alert in him and left it on for the rest of his life. He missed the first four minutes of catch-up everyday so that what came to him was recycled and secondary, and that was tough because, when it came down to it, he had a confused feeling for Quiller pretty much consistently after that seventh grade winter of duck hunting. Sort of like a deep, unbreakable loyalty, a thing that being the third to show up and the first to break off at the end of the day really put a strain on. Perhaps it was that early fact that was like a domino getting knocked over. One of many that banged around in his head.
It had been important to all of them back when they were boys, but especially Jacob, that they stay clumped in the trio because they didn’t know what a friendship with just two of them would be. They didn’t know about how to be alone with just one other guy. Nobody worthwhile did that, as far as they could tell, not their fathers or their grandfathers who moved and talked in hordes or not at all. And their horde was three so in three they moved. They would walk in to their shift, men now, heavy in their winter clothes, their proud steel-toes, carrying their own personal hardhats for otherwise lice would go around and nobody could get the notion out of the gut of their moral understandings that only the really despicably poor kids got lice.
But they were working men now. Quiller said on a loading dock once to Jacob, standing tall with the paper cup of coffee curling up steam and wetting his new beard, keeping his distance from Jacob, staring way out onto the plowed tar, “We can’t be kids anymore, guy,” invoking that we in a way that was like a politician saying we, knowing no matter what he says about tax breaks for the poor and medical access to rural communities, at the end of the day, we is as useful as a step you climb up and forget. One day Quiller didn’t wait to walk with the boys.
And after that it was just different. Overnight they grew eyes that didn’t recognize each other. If they saw each other they’d walk together but sometimes they walked with other people or alone like men. It was Samual who kept the six feet from everyone, who took flack for it but was forgiven, for he could invoke the image of his youngest sister who had had a disease in which her lungs filled with water, and she did not make it past five years old, and he could say, “Fuck off man, my sister died from such-and-such.” That shut people up, a dead sister shut guys up, and when somebody talked shit about the new guy who kept six feet away, somebody else would be there to say, “Hey man, his sister died.” And it didn’t hurt that Samual was a nice guy who didn’t hate himself, which is a type of confidence people like.
Jacob had a loneliness in him that reared up like a virus he couldn’t quite ever kick. He wouldn’t call it sadness, not that word, though he was as afraid of the pain of this not-sadness as he was of drowning. He just worked those bad thoughts into something else and made himself tougher than tough until a person could hear him trying to be something like a rifle shot from a mile off. Once Samual started keeping a body length away and really, really keeping it, Jacob called out in the cold as Christ air, those evacuated old streets ringing with his whole nineteen years of living, “Come on. You believe that shit? It’s them trying to keep us docile, it’s the fucking Boston Massacre.”
Samual nodded and shrugged at his old friend. Turned and watched a goddamn Tesla whirring up the empty street with Massachusetts plates, swirling the cold leaves of last season. He watched the guys walking in the road shuttle over like ducklings. This big, dark quiet-engined duck parting them.
Some of the guys, the strangers who didn’t know what Jacob looked like when he showed up as a little kid to the bike gang crying with the skin split over his cheek bone and pissed-in pants so short they partitioned his crotch, those guys would nod, and there would be murmurs in the cold, clear air. Some people believed in the sickness. But some people like Jacob had had tough fathers who didn’t know how to love their sons and so these sons had maybe grown up tough and lonely too, and these sons, now workers, took on that toughness without knowing, for to mimic is to love, and to love sometimes is an act of deep contrition.
So in this way Quiller, Samuel and Jacob walked to the shipyard all through those first months of quarantine. Jacob made jokes about toilet paper and they worried about their families a little and their jobs and futures. Quiller and Samual listened to Jacob talk about conspiracies like this first one had been the toe in door and now the door was wide open, the light was shining on all the lies and he was seeing the truth. It turned to spring and tulips came up through mulch. Summer folk clogged the street with more Teslas and other uselessly fancy cars. Eventually Quiller started on a different shift, then Samual too, and then the triad didn’t see each other so often, which was maybe a good thing for the longevity of their friendship. By that first summer, most everybody figured the sickness was kicked.
That part of the country did all right for a while, cold and in the off-season, the sticks, the sickness didn’t spread quite so fast, and though it did spread some, it wasn’t like in cities. And they were all young working people, whose bodies were used to forgetting a sickness and an ache because there is always another body who will take the place of the absent. They figured they would do the same with this sickness and took pride in believing that. Even if they didn’t say so, they took pride. And when they heard that they were the ones that kept working while the rest of the country with their cush internet jobs settled in at home and talked in awe about loneliness and the importance of self-care while they kept making money without risking their lungs or their backs, these makers, shifters, fryers, drivers, demolitionists and the moppers out in the wet sticks where they had survived and were still surviving, though the taxes were going up from all the people buying quaint second water-view homes, they felt confirmed in their beliefs that what was going on was a game that they weren’t even players in. They were just part of the goddamned board. They lived in an out-of-the-way place, and the world was only as big as a neighborhood, some days. The tide went in and out twice a day. They finished a ship that would sail out and sit by China so they all stood outside and had a beer.
Some did take it all seriously and quit and got unemployment and that was all right because they weren’t around to be looked at anymore. Some others got their vaccines when those came out and then their boosters, except for those that quit instead of getting the government implant, as Jacob shouted it, delightedly, for B.I.W. required it after a while. And by then it had been a year and a lot had changed, and Quiller and Samual and Jacob didn’t see each other much.
Samual would send hey there and memes often into their triad group chat and Jacob would always respond in two seconds like his phone was in his hand, like he knew the text was coming in when Samual was thinking about how to phrase hey there and what meme was casual but cool and looked like he might have just come across it rather than searched it out just for those two boys who’d grown up into guys. And sometimes Quiller would respond after days with a shit it’s a novel at the whole slew of texts he’d missed, then say, sorry guys, damn it’s busy tho, and Jacob would say, Nelly’s? But Samual really was still frightened of this sickness that they said could kill him like his sister went, he’d seen what it did to her, how her face went blue and then she drowned all alone like she herself had tides that flooded, but he wouldn’t say this, he’d text, can’t, soon tho, and that would be the end of the conversation. Unless it was one of those rare times the text would come in from Quiller saying, just like an older brother would, yeah sure bud, whens good for you?
Jacob’s dad’s parents had both died eventually, kicked it in the same week, right before the vaccine. And that was hard, sort of confusing for a guy who didn’t believe in the sickness and also believed, if he believed in anything, about the trust due to the grit of his family.
Samual went to the funeral back home in Bucksport because it was on his day off. Quiller couldn’t get that Saturday off, for there was a big need for ships for it was feeling like war everywhere. And besides, everybody was going to funerals or was quitting and overtime pay had become just normal time pay.
Jacob didn’t cry, of course, didn’t feel much of anything at all, just knew the funeral was a bad time. They all stood around in their black fabric in a hot May of the year the vaccines came out, which was a like a fuck you, that heat wave in May while everyone was in their thickest black suits and tights. It was a Catholic funeral. And then the fact that his grandparents hadn’t even been that old, sixty-nine and seventy, was a fuck you, too. Jacob and his dad both went pink in the face and walked around with their mouths closed looking like two brothers, one who’d had a rougher life.
People stood in clusters of four or more and said to each other, “It’s how it was supposed to be,” by which they meant, it was good they had died together, so one didn’t have to miss the other and the finances of it too, Jesus Christ. And nobody talking about how at the end one had died two days before the other one, who had looked like she was going to pull through, but then some doctor finally told her, “Sarah, Marty’s passed,” and in two hours after that she was dead.
Jacob’s dad certainly didn’t cry and actually seemed some degrees happier after they were gone. Maybe this had to do with the fact that they were Catholic and he had feelings sometimes that didn’t feel Catholic in the way that his parents were. Feelings that he saw in his own youngest boy. So when that youngest got a job at Bellport Iron Works like his two boy friends did, he struck him in the chest with one pointed finger and whispered, “B.I.W. boys?” in a way that was different from how Samual’s mom said it, because it had wrapped up in it a question like, When you gonna man up and quit trying to ruin your life? and sounded different because Jacob’s father wanted Jacob to hear that question. Because that’s what it was about really, how it could feel like being queer was a choice to ruin your life in that part of the world, which was the only part of the world Jacob’s dad really knew. It was a selfish thing to do to the parents who had paid to have you kept on that earth and even paid the interest on the C-section debt. But the years and a pandemic went on and in fact some things are too big to believe in anything but the fear of them.
There was no after the pandemic because everything was changed then, though there was certainly a before. But there was a time people started saying, “You know, during the pandemic—” like it was all done. And during those years the presidents switched and people changed like they felt their true selves coming out, not knowing that sort of truth was just hope or fear that felt different, finally. Took a shape, finally, and what a relief to see it.
And during those two years Quiller had gotten a promotion and a pay raise and had actually bought one of those new vinyl-sided triplex houses in the neighborhood even though prices were sky high due to all the city rich running out to the romantic quiet country, changing everybody’s ability to stay alive. People’s mobile homes started selling for six figures. Time had spilled, and here those three were at the edge of it. But Quiller had wanted to start being a man who owned things. So he bought the triplex and kept the renters who were B.I.W. workers too, like half of everyone in that neighborhood. And then finally, when things were starting to look okay, he had Samual and Jacob over, and they sat around his nice polished concrete kitchen island getting drunker on light beer until Jacob, for some reason, lit a cigarette inside and it went quiet while they watched him light it.
Samual giggled, for the whole evening had been so edgy, he’d been holding in that giggle the whole time like a fart, these big wide stretches where they’d tell the same story, that time about the ducks, and now that it had been almost a decade they could laugh about how scared they were to watch things die. And that one about that time when they were eight and Quiller was lost in the woods and Jacob’s dad finally found him sleeping, just passed out scared, and carried him back to camp and little Quiller said in his sleep, “Hands off me sack, Santa,” which had always been funny, so fucking funny, but now it wasn’t. Something about change.
But they told that story and others, trying out all of them, trying and hoping one of them would fit, like if it fit they would know there was some chance of going back to how it was once. But now there was this cigarette going in Quiller’s new kitchen and it was quiet and Samual was laughing, trying to cool it all off, saying, “Oh yeah, tough guy’s drunk,” which wasn’t the right thing to say, but not quite the wrong thing, it was the only thing, because in a triad like that there’s always some measure of diplomacy, always somebody who’s doing the actual quiet work of keeping everybody together and that had been Samual’s job.
So Jacob turned to Samual and said, “Fuck off, you fag.” Quiller stood up and said, “Put that shit out,” which was fine, that was fine, wasn’t that fine? Any guy would say that. And Jacob did, he put it out in the sink, but he couldn’t say sorry, he couldn’t, not for lighting up, for that was like being a dog and taking a piss on your buddy’s new fence, you just had to, had to remind everybody, your buddy included, that you were still there, that you still existed, even though his fence was bigger than yours. So they sat around a little longer, then Samual said, a little desperately, full of something like grief, “Remember eighth grade homecoming?” He asked if they remembered that one girl’s name, that one who had the foursome with so-and-so’s brother in her neighbor’s garage. But that didn’t work like it used to either. So Quiller, who was only twenty-two, like all of them, swore, heaved over to the fridge and got down a nearly-gone bottle of Four Roses the previous owner of the house had left. They got drunker and the silence between the words got worse. Not even like it got longer, just like it went deeper, tattooed into them the change that had come. Samual went home eventually to his apartment. Jacob waited it out a little bit longer and then slipped outside, more or less drunker than he’d been in a while. The air was cold and woke him up from the heat of the place he’d been sinking into. They kept living.
Eventually, they all got married, one a year for three years. Jacob first somehow. A girl he said he could talk to and who hunted, who they’d known from back home, who’d moved down to Bellport with a two-year-old son. This surprised everybody at first. But like everything, it just became how it was after a while. Though maybe it was true Quiller and Samual called bullshit to each other, quietly.
And maybe it was also true that Quiller had a piece of jealousy in him, which was probably as simple as wanting to be the one who got married first, like he’d wanted to be the one to buy a house first, just to prove to somebody that he could, and whether or not that somebody was his dad or mom or these two guys, it didn’t matter. Or maybe jealousy is a name that just gets applied to hurt when the hurt like a bent out of shape love is too confusing to call it what it is. But nobody talked about this stuff.
When Jacob told those boys they said, “Holy shit my man, congrats.” They asked if she was pregnant and he laughed and seemed happy about being able to say that she wasn’t. They were good for a while. They felt grown up and together. They felt young like boys starting out new all over again. They went to Nelly’s often. They told the old stories.
They planned the bachelor party weekend out at Jacob’s dad’s dead dad’s old cabin up in Bucksport, where they were going to shoot the shit and some ducks with some other B.I.W. boys. In the cabin’s gun closet Jacob had hung up his dead grandfather’s good hunting rifles. They were going to have a nice, low-key time. Jacob, who got there first and unlocked the place and turned the heat on, was feeling how good it was going to feel, being the triad in a group of guys. Letting those guys see what a lifetime of loyalty and brotherhood really looked like. What it looked like to loved by men like that, though love was a word he reserved for women. The day was cold and the slice of ocean he could see through the cabin’s kitchen window was white-capped and everything felt right, like life had done what Jacob had thought it was supposed to do.
But then Quiller pulled into the cabin’s gravel in his nice, black two-door Chevy with Samual in the passenger seat. Maybe it was the fact that Jacob hadn’t known those two were going to drive up together that hurt so quick. He watched them through the dust on the cabin’s kitchen window. They sat in that truck for a minute. Just the two of them continuing whatever conversation they’d been having, just sitting in it a bit longer with their heads bent down and towards each other like they were both listening hard and like it was a hard thing they were talking of, and Jacob knew, knew right then they were talking about him. He knew it like he knew the back ass of greatness.
Here was that old not-sadness. It took him in its teeth by the throat.
Jacob watched Samual and Quiller. Quiller’s nice black truck. Just the two of them. He knew they would come up to the cabin in a second and they’d put on laughing faces and start asking how the old married man was doing. And Jesus, it hurt in a way that seemed to come from all over. Seeing his two boys bend close, talking low like that. Like Jacob had never been with a man, like neither one was thinking about keeping distance. Like he’d been drowned when he couldn’t even see the water.
He thought how it would be like getting rats one by one with a bee bee or ducks in a pond or setting traps in an attic that’d been getting dirtied by a chewing loneliness he hadn’t known how to kill for twenty-four years. He thought about how he could do it right then. If he was quick before his boys got out that good, new truck. He thought about the five steps it would take to cross the room from the kitchen sink to the gun closet, over that old rag rug his grandma had made. It was a little cabin.
This sure wasn’t the first time and it wasn’t the last time he’d feel a little relief like he’d found a fix to a problem in the mechanics of his body. How all along the only solution had been to scrap it and let somebody else start fresh. His whole neck went hot, standing there at the sink. It was a bad itch.
But then Quiller and Samual were opening those truck doors. They caught sight of him staring through the cabin kitchen window and now they were cheering him, and Quiller was standing on his runner board, yelling, “There stands my goddamn groom!”
Samual and Quiller had brand new whiskey bottles in their hands lifting up into the autumn air, the whole ocean stretched out cold and gray behind them. New lines to each of their foreheads. Quiller with a softness around his chin, more inches on his Wranglers’ waist. Each had muscle in different places and softness through their thighs for not one of the three of them had ever ridden a bike in years, would spill if they tried. There they were, slipping on that fake brotherhood yell like marriage was a good war. The wind changed off the water down from the Bay of Fundy and lifted Quiller’s hair and then Samual’s. The wind had winter coming at its back edge and it shook the glass between him and them. The sadness got eaten by fear and that fear like he had learned how to do in the house of his childhood got eaten by fury and just then Jacob didn’t know what he’d do to those boys when they came into his grandfather’s cabin but the pain pulsed bloodlike into his knuckles, hot as the tears of a child.
Katherine Cart writes about labor and wealth disparity in this changing ecosystem. She is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Virginia and has a BS in General Biology from the University of New Hampshire. Before returning to academia, she worked on commercial fishing vessels in the Bering Sea and Gulfs of Maine and Alaska. She is at work on her first novel, which asks repeatedly if childhood desperation can shape a later hate. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Raritan. She paints disrupted figures in oils and ink and misses living on the water quite often. Katherine’s visual work can be found at katherinecart.com.