STEEL WORK – Sara McAulay


It had been a crazy morning—five fountains, a multi-tier birdbath, nine little pissing cupids, and a stainless-steel giraffe to be packed for pick-up by three-thirty. Hector was out sick.  Joel had left at noon, making like Mr. Business Owner (which, to be fair, he is) and showing a contingent of Minnesota landscape architects some of our off-site jobs. That left Miguel and me to get everything crated and popcorned before UPS arrived. Then Miguel’s dog, named Dumb-Ass for good reason, had one of his tail-chasing fits, knocking over a table where I’d spread a bunch of solvent-washed bicycle sprockets to dry, and one of the sprockets flew up and hit a bottle on the workbench. Glass everywhere.
I sent Miguel to Home Depot to pick up supplies, taking Dumb-Ass with him. Since it was Friday, I figured I’d probably seen the last of them for the day. By the time I’d finished sweeping up glass and rewashing the bike sprockets—this time next week they’d be part of a coffee table or floor lamp (four hundred bucks in our showroom; six-fifty in a shop on 4th Street in Berkeley)—it was almost three.  The day had been chilly and damp, threatening rain at the end of a gray early-November week, but now the clouds were breaking up. Watery sunlight slanted in through the shop’s open door and lay like a thin yellowish rug on the asphalt floor.
I got my sandwich and Coke from the fridge in the office and sat in the doorway while I ate and smoked one of my week’s allotment of cigarettes. And then, because it seemed as if I’d been cold forever, and because the sun fell warm as a hand on my face, and because the afternoon’s work was catalog-order fountains and garden statuary that my assistant ought to be doing, except that my assistant had taken a hike more than a month ago and still hadn’t been replaced, I decided to have tomorrow’s smoke today.
So I lit up and sank back into the blue canvas chair with my name, LIZA, in peeling white letters across the back. Joel’s idea. He’s got a chair too, a red one. Does it say JOEL? No, it does not. It says BOSS, and his letters are gold, not white. Peeling worse than mine, though. I take some comfort in that, and help the cause along with a fingernail every now and again.
Eyes closed, head back, sun on my face, I took little light sips of my coffin nail, figuring that carcinoma and pleasure endorphins ought to cancel each other out. Within minutes I’d entered that freeform freefall freewheel state between dream and consciousness, where nothing is real and everything is real and all things are possible. When the car pulled into the lot, I didn’t move, just incorporated the sound of the engine and the silence when it shut off into the warmth and comfort and cigarette taste where I’d been drifting.
Footsteps approached. The sounds of someone coming home.
I opened one eye. With the light behind her the woman was just a silhouette. My heart stopped, then punched me like a fist. I bolted up out of my chair. “Karinne?”
Not Karinne, of course. Never Karinne. No resemblance at all, except that the age was more or less right. My visitor had decided a champagne-blonde bouffe might be a good idea. It wasn’t.
I settled back into my chair.
“I’m looking for Ricky D. Coghlin,” she said.
“Coghlin. Ricky D. Do you know him?” She approached, tipping along gingerly in shiny new cowboy boots that weren’t such a hot idea either, and held out a photo faded with age: a dark-haired young guy in a fringed jacket, sideburns, and drooping ’stache, like something out of a funky ’70s movie, cradling a tenor sax in one arm.  A flower child in a long, tie-dyed skirt melted against him. Both were squinting into the sun, their noses and chins casting stark black shadows. The young woman looked vaguely familiar. The man, no.
“Sorry,” I said.
“I have it from a reliable source,” my visitor said, and stopped.
I recognized her then—the girl in the picture, now with that bad bleach job and a lot more miles etched onto her face. She swallowed hard and blinked, holding it all together, but it was surface tension, like the skin that holds water in a glass even when you fill it past the rim. One drop too many and you’ve got a mess on your hands.
“I have it from a reliable source,” she said again, “from a very reliable source, that Ricky D.’s been working here, in this shop.” She glanced down at a little spiral notepad I hadn’t noticed she was carrying. “Creative Metal Solutions.”
“That’s us.” Makers of quality items in wrought iron, steel, and non-ferrous metals. Fountains, patio furniture, and entryways our specialty.
Joel’s been in business right here in Oakland since Christ hammered nails. Some days it feels like I’ve been here almost as long, and in fact I’m coming up on eighteen years. The catalog items are all Joel’s design. Me, I do the custom stuff: big, one-of-a-kind iron gates for software tycoons’ ranches in Carmel Valley; an entrance archway for Towhee Vineyards on the road into St. Helena. I do window grilles that look like spiderwebs (spider available as an extra) and security shutters in the shape of hands with interlaced fingers. In other words, I’m the Creative in Creative Metals. Folks come into the shop with a sketch or just an idea, and I sit down with them and listen, and then they go away and I get my torches and start cutting steel. You can see my stuff all over: Seattle, Santa Fe, Tucson. I have work in galleries as well. If I wanted to pack up my gear and move to New York or LA, I could make a go of it.
But I’m not leaving Oakland. I’ve got a live/work space where the rent hasn’t been raised in years, and neighbors with big dogs that make it almost safe to walk home from the bus at night when my bike’s on the fritz. It’s on the fritz a lot, and a sensible woman would have sold it long ago. but it’s a museum piece, a ’55 Vincent Black Lightning, and trying to keep it halfway healthy is one way of keeping myself halfway sane. Mainly I stay here, though, because…let’s just say I have ties.
“My source told me he’s worked here for more than three years,” the woman was saying.
I wanted her out of the shop before she started to cry or tell me her sad story or both. But when she offered the photo again, my hand reached out on autopilot and my heart sank. I was going to be pulled into this, I could feel it. Sure enough, when I studied the man’s face I could see similarities. Lard him up by thirty pounds, gray his hair, droop his jowls, crack a few of his teeth, and it was definitely possible. The name was wrong, but with guys like Denis names don’t mean a hell of a lot.
“No Ricky here,” I said. “Just Joel, he owns the place; and Liza, that’s me; and Hector and Miguel who stock supplies, do deliveries, maintenance, stuff like that. And Denis. He’s my assistant, only nobody’s seen him since the end of September, so we figure he quit.”
“Denis,” said the woman, her face lighting up. “That’s the D in Ricky D. I know it’s him! Take a closer look.”
I’d seen enough. “Could be, I guess. But like I said, he’s missing.”
I wanted to leave it at that. Didn’t want to tell her the guy she was looking for, the one in the picture, didn’t exist anymore, even if he hadn’t literally disappeared. I figured he hadn’t seen him in years, that the image in her mind still resembled the one in the photo. Dude in a cowboy jacket, not handsome exactly, but even I could see he had a kind of roguey sax-player’s charm. I realized I had no idea how old Denis was. “Getting up there” is how I thought of him, a comment more on his general spirit and condition than on his actual years. Now I asked myself: could he be, say, mid-fifties? My age? Younger? I supposed he could.
“You have no idea,” the woman said, “how hard I’ve been looking. I’ve been following leads, driving all over the place, across the whole damn country. But until now…” She leaned toward me, smiling—not obviously, exactly, more practiced and calculating. Her hand settled lightly on my wrist. “You’re my best chance so far. I can’t tell you how glad I am to find you.”
“Sorry, I can’t help.” I glanced down at where her hand rested, forefinger brushing lightly back and forth. She looked straight as a string to me, but I was handy, and maybe this was the only way she could think of to get whatever information I might be holding back.
Thoughts jumbled around in my mind. Foremost among them: Damn, who’d have believed old Denis would inspire this kind of interest in anyone? And: Okay, lady, what’s the real story here?
Behind her, Joel’s truck rolled into its reserved-for-Joel parking slot. To my surprise, Miguel was right behind him. Let him finish the packing, then, and deal with UPS. “Why don’t we get a cup of coffee,” I suggested.
Aside from the two trucks and my Vincent, there was just one vehicle in the lot, the saddest old Dodge Dart you ever saw in your life. Metallic purple drive-thru paint job that no doubt had looked like shit the day it was done, many years in the rearview, and was powdery and flaking now. Patches of unprimed metal showing through. Jersey plates to round out the picture. It would have been funny if it weren’t so pathetic. You had to have lived a pretty rough life to end up driving a car like that from New Jersey to California, looking for a man who would turn out—assuming you could find him at all—to be an all-world disappointment.
“There’s a sandwich place we can walk to,” I told her. “But if you want espresso or anything, we’ll have to take your car. Unless”—why not?—“you want a ride on my bike.”
She said, “Ricky D. had a Harley. Almost killed himself on it once. I made him sell it.”
No wonder he’s gone, I managed not to say.


Musto’s was a little Greek café behind an industrial awning company. At that time of day it was quiet, the booths in the back still empty.
I sat the woman down, got her a double capp and a piece of halvah, myself the same, and then slid into the booth across from her. “Okay, what’s the story?”
“I don’t know where to begin,” she said.
“You could remind me what your name is.”
“Patty. Patricia. Patty Coghlin. I’m Ricky D. Coghlin’s wife.” A different photo had appeared on the table between us. Half a photo, maybe two-thirds, neatly torn. The same man and woman, considerably older, and two little blond boys. “These are our sons. Dicky and Davey; they’re twins. That was their third birthday.” She tapped the picture with a finger; her nails, the color of plums, were ragged and chipped. “They’re seventeen now, really good kids, but boys need their father, don’t you agree?”
“I have girls, myself. Had girls.”
My voice sounded garbled and thin, as if I were listening to myself underwater. I waited to see if my submerged self would have anything to add to this, or if the woman would ask what I’d meant by had. Then I noticed that one of the boys in the picture seemed to have an extra leg, complete with sandaled foot. That’s really what it looked like at first, until I realized that someone else had been in the picture—another child, but taller, longer-legged.
I stared at the leg and the sandal—a girl’s, white, with an ankle strap—and saw how straight the torn edge was, how carefully it ran along the man’s right shoulder and the nearest boy’s. “Who’s the missing kid?”
“The what?” Patty Coghlin shot me a look. “Oh, goodness! I don’t remember.” She gave a sharp little laugh. “A neighbor child. I may have given part of the picture to her mother when we moved. Maybe that’s why it’s torn.” She laughed again. Then her face hardened and she bent to study the packets of sugar in their little basket by the napkin dispenser. “Funny, I don’t even remember her name.”
Liar, I thought. I told myself, Leave it alone. But hell hadn’t frozen yet. “Jeannie?” I suggested. “Janie, Sally, Sue…?”
“Patricia.” Patty stabbed a fork into her halvah as if she held it personally responsible for all the grief and meanness and disappointment she’d known in her life. Her cheeks were flushed. “She had the same name as me. Isn’t that a hoot?” She snipped off the end of the word like it was a thread and she was all through with sewing, forever amen.
The café door swung open, and two men came in—ordered coffee to go, paid, left again, with barely a glance at the pastries in the display case.
Patty and I watched this riveting show. “So,” I said when the door closed, “somebody told you your husband—your ex?—was working here, and if you find him you’ll try to get him to pay child support. Is that it?”
But that was just for starters. “My boys are running with a bad crowd,” Patty said. Then she continued in a rush: “Children are so susceptible to peer pressure at that age. They need to stay in school. They need a firm hand.”
I tried without success to imagine the Denis I knew applying a firm hand to anything that wasn’t a cutting torch or a bottle of screw-top red. One afternoon, when things were slow at the shop and we were talking, he’d mentioned that he’d been married once, with kids. Hadn’t seen them in years, he said when I asked, and wouldn’t want them to see him the way he was now. “Maybe one day, when I clean up my act.” Sure, I’d said, just as if I believed him.
Now I wondered. Denis and I got along, friendly but not close. It was rare for us to talk about anything except work and fishing, and even there we had our differences. He liked surf-casting, but I far preferred renting an idiot-proof outboard and dozing for a few hours, hat brim pulled down over my face, any-team baseball on the radio, while the delta carp and catfish turned up their noses at whatever I’d dropped over the side.
“I just know that if we could be a family again, everything would be okay,” Patty went on. “I mean, I know I made mistakes. I shouldn’t have let him go, I should have started looking for him sooner. But I had a chemical imbalance in my blood, I wasn’t thinking clearly, you know, and then I met someone…” She gave a shaky laugh. “Do you know what that’s like?”
Like the current in a slow-looking river that grabs you by the ankles and yanks you off your feet, then takes you half a mile downstream before you come up for air and your life’s forever fucked.
I drained my coffee. “Who told you he was working at Creative Metals?”
She shrugged. “Ricky D.’s from Eureka, originally. Up north. I guess you know where it is. I hired a detective. After that one lead led to another, I guess, just like on TV.”
It was a surprise to learn that Eureka even had a detective agency. And Patty hadn’t struck me as the sort of person who’d contact one. I was impressed, to tell the truth. I’d thought about doing the same thing myself after Karinne left, but in the way you think that one day you’ll go back to college and actually get a degree in something. Eastern philosophy, say, like my older brother—the one who’d returned from six months on a mountain in Tibet and gone to work for a mining company. Who needed a detective anyway? I kept expecting her to come back, her and the girls. They’d show up at the front door that had been ours for all those years, and we’d pick up our lives and go on.
“Hey.” Patty leaned across the table. “You listening? The boys need their father.” Good boys at heart, but peer pressure, neighborhood on the slide, violent video games, internet porn—she couldn’t handle it alone anymore. “Even if he doesn’t want me back as, you know, a wife”—she lowered her eyes, and I’d swear she blushed—“he needs to be in their lives.”
“Where are they now?”
Her eyelids flickered. “Oh”—brightly—“they’re staying with friends.”
Up to that point I’d been with her. But I’d thought friends were the problem, peer pressure and all. Ah, well, I thought. It was probably the best she could do.
She was still talking. Ricky/Denis was a deadbeat dad, not a cent in child support all those years, and she’d had her own troubles with those imbalanced chemicals and (I gathered) more lousy guys in her life than one.
“Still, he’s not the worst,” she said. “I didn’t appreciate him when I had him. Isn’t that always the way?” She paused, in case I wanted to agree, but I kept my eyes lowered, studying the halvah crumbs on my plate.
“The twins need a firm hand, a man’s hand,” Patty went on. “And he could be sweet, sometimes. I’ve got to find him.”
I picked up my cup, but it was empty so I set it down again. “Like I said. No clue where he might be.”
It was after five o’clock by this time; the Early Bird Special crowd were starting to drift in. Another few minutes, and I would either have to suggest dinner or be ready to answer if she did. I leaned back in the booth and rubbed my eyes. “Joel—that’s the guy who owns the business—tried calling him, three or four times, even notified the cops. A few weeks ago I rode out to where he lives. I mean, I like the guy, and I could really use some help at the shop.”
“He wasn’t there, I guess.”
“Nobody’d seen him. His landlady said he was paid up through the end of the month and it was none of her business what he did before then.” I shrugged. “I expect he’s perfectly okay. He’s a drifter, and he drifted. It happens.”
In fact it had happened half a dozen times in the years he’d worked for us. He’d get drunk and wander off, then come weaving back in a day or a week or two, all sorry and sheepish, with his money gone and maybe his shoes, hair matted like the back end of a stray collie. It had been a worry the first few times, then just an inconvenience—people calling up about their wrought-iron gate or that garden fountain with the peeing cupid that they’d ordered and paid for.
Denis was our cupid guy. He actually seemed to like making them, while it’s all I can do not to put the feet on backward out of boredom, or contempt. One time I slipped a condom on the little iron prick before I packed our boy in styrofoam popcorn and shipped him off to Missouri.
“Sorry I haven’t been more help,” I said. “I wish he’d come back, because there’s a shitload of work piled up.” I pulled my phone from the pocket of my shirt. “Let me text you a number. It’s a bar near where he lives—they take his messages.”
“Seriously?” She laughed. “I thought that only happened in old movies. He doesn’t have a cell?”
“Doesn’t like ’em. Says they let people spy on you—and he’s not wrong! I’ll give you his address too. Maybe you’ll get lucky. And now I’d better run you back to your car.”
Which I did, without further conversation or incident. Then I headed home. It had begun to rain.

Author’s Statement

Steel Work is a novel in progress, though I’ve recently finished a second draft. Set in Oakland and coastal Humboldt County, California, it follows three women brought together by chance, and their intertwined struggles with loss, betrayal, and resolution (or lack thereof).
Liza, the narrator, is a woman in her fifties, a sculptor and craftswoman whose estranged wife/partner and their two daughters died in an accident several years before the novel begins. Her reflexive response to any adversity is to play it off, deflect, make jokes, and—if that fails—to walk away. “Leaving,” she says later in the novel. “Yeah, it’s what I do best.” Until, of course, she can’t anymore.
Patty, who also appears in the opening chapter, has a small but crucial role to play throughout the novel. She focuses Liza’s attention on her assistant at work, Denis, an alcoholic drifter who seems to have drifted—“It’s what drifters do”—but also seems to be Patty’s ex. Their teenage sons are running with a bad crowd, she says, and need “a father’s hand.” Also, Patty wouldn’t say no to some child-support payments.
RG, or the Rat Girl, is a former street kid befriended and not-quite-adopted by Liza. She doesn’t appear until Chapter Three but is a major character, and a major force, in the novel. Mouthy, smart, self-taught with the help of Prof. Google, she too is a specialist in leaving, having picked up that skill as a child. For her own reasons, she also becomes involved in trying to track Denis down.
While the disappearance of Denis provides a through-line, Steel Work is not a mystery novel in the traditional sense. As a writer, I’m interested in the themes of family, loss, and grief, and in the ways—healthy or not so healthy—that we try to cope. Liza keeps herself on a short leash: rations her cigarettes and weed, drinks only non-alcoholic beer, dates women she knows will soon bore her so she doesn’t have to worry about falling in love again. I see her as someone who has never grieved the loss of her family because to do so would mean facing the ways in which she might have been complicit. But only then will she be able to move forward.


Sara McAulay lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with the world’s smartest and most beautiful Australian Shepherd dog. She is the author of three previous novels and numerous works of short fiction and poetry.

Embark, Issue 16, April 2022