Featured in Colorado Review
Ode to OrangeNonfiction
Published Summer 2018
Tonight, with the rain, the streetlight has turned my bedroom window bright orange, translucent—that kind of toxic phosphorescence found in creeks near strip mines—and of course it makes me think of Kenova, westernmost West Virginia, the bright orange banks of the Big Sandy and the Ohio, lit up with Ashland Oil and Calgon Carbon and the plants that make propane and polypropylene, MarkWest, Nexeo, the coal terminals, and the Marathon tank farm, all of it every night spilling what must be a hundred million watts across the tri-state. I see Tolsia Highway and its drill-blasted rock faces glazed orange all the way to Williamson. I’m thinking of the gas flares that sometimes bloom over the tree line and the light that soaks up into the thick layer of cloud vapor before dewing back down onto the houses, that heavy half-light you can’t keep off your vinyl siding, can’t keep out of the windows, that used to turn my bedroom curtains into neon, burning what was not blinds onto the walls the pale orange trapezoids I can still see when I close my eyes.
It makes me think of my father. This is his color. For more than thirty years he has worked in refineries, in power plants and paper mills, and they have worked their orange into him. He is an industrial radiographer, a plant inspector. He is an expert on the welds that hold together the coker and hydrocracker skylines all across the mid-Atlantic. All my life he has toiled under that light, working some magic of isotopes and electromagnetics and, I confess, I never really understood what he did, what the job was that kept pulling him away for so many weeks at a time—god, by now they must add up to years. To me he was just steel and interstate, a truck warming in the driveway at three a.m. gassed for Ashtabula.
But before me, in another life, he was an artist. Though if he were to admit this at all, he would be careful to use the word craftsman, something to indicate equal parts forearm and feel, call to mind the glassmakers he knew in his early twenties, those five years he worked at Pilgrim Glass learning how to handcraft like Alessandro, like Roberto, the brilliant Italian artisans transplanted somehow from Murano to Ceredo, West Virginia, to that small factory on Walker’s Branch where my father watched them wield with seven hundred years of Moretti muscle memory what must have been his first real brush with beauty, a body doing what it was born to do.
What I mean is, you can still see the soft touch at the edges of all my father’s labor. What was always on display on those evenings when I would watch him walk in the yard, how you could catch him inspecting with his fingertips the new buds on the row of dogwoods he’d wrestled into the ground himself. Or the way he would clear rocks from his garden, finessing each one toward the burn pile with a wrist that used to roll glass, that decades ago knew how to tweeze the delicate last details onto a vase he’d shaped with his breath.
But I didn’t know him then. Laid off in ’85, and expecting me in ’86, he took up Iridium-192 and Cobalt-60 and began working into his hands the cold knowledge of steel fatigue and decay rates and the calluses that kept the art in him just out of reach. What I know is the orange. It was always with him, the worn-in, low-pressure sodium-vapor you could see lingering just beneath his skin.
I remember the first time I saw it. It is one of two memories I have of him coming to tuck me in when I was a kid. It was always my mother who came to my room when I couldn’t sleep—my father either working or sleeping before work—but one night it was his voice in the doorway, asking me what was the matter. That night the trains were keeping me up, not their clacking and the wailing but the way their sadness never quite lifts out of the valley. And as I was trying to explain the sound to him, I could see his shape in the doorway relieve a little, lighten up in that way he still does when the room finally opens itself to hearing what he’s been thinking. Sitting on the edge of my bed, he told me about the house he grew up in and how those same trains used to rattle his bedroom window at night. He told me when the horns sound, what he hears is home, and suddenly I could see that he was orange, lit dimly with, I thought, the memory, some old and secret joy that had been drawn to the surface, an inner orange you could catch but only in certain lights, like the invisible oil slick in our driveway that went iridescent only when it rained.
And then I couldn’t not see it. It burned brightest in those early years when he was hardly home, back when he was on the road more, spent more time in Glen Lyn, Virginia, and Lima, Ohio, fighting off sleep and boredom and that particular kind of homesickness always waiting for him back at the Red Roof. He must know a hundred Kenovas. He must see a thousand plants when he closes his eyes. Back then it was Gibson, Shippingport, DP&L. Zimmer, Mountaineer, Amos, and Westvaco, enormous orange gnarls of steel and light that from far away look like impossible cities seeping out of the deep dark of Appalachia, which is what it looked like in his eyes after three straight weeks on the road—distant residual pools of industrial orange light he’ll never quite sleep out of the retinas.
But we couldn’t wait for him to bring it home—the tunnel under Big Walker, orange of the Exxon tiger, West Virginia Turnpike toll plaza orange. When we were kids, my sister and I used to stay up and watch for his headlights to flash in the window, and when he’d finally push open the door he’d reek of sulfur and motel soap and I don’t remember talking, just pressing my face into his dirty shirt and breathing it in and then going to bed lightheaded with what felt like gasoline in my heart.
This ritual goes back. I don’t know where it started but I know we’ve been bringing this orange home for generations. As long as there have been gas and oil fields in Lincoln County, mining out Mingo and Logan, as long as Dow Chemical up Charleston has spilled down and out into the tributaries, we have carried this incandescence in our blood. We have been kept up by the orange light we miss in the people we love. Before my father, it was his mother who carried it. It was my father in the evenings waiting for the air in the house to turn ethylene sweet with the rubber plant she would bring home in her hair and on her skin.
I never met her. She died when my father was young. As far as I know, she lives in only one photograph, a family portrait, circa 1965, taken in the front yard of the old house in Ten Mile. The rest of the family smiling at the camera, she stands in profile, expressionless, her eyes trained on her five children, the poses she doesn’t find funny. There in her apron, shoulders slumped, a step away from everyone else, it is clear she wants no part in this vanity, this sentimentality, that she has dragged herself into frame only to get back to work, to be alone again with her work so she can go on loving them in that tight-lipped way she has loved and been loved her whole life. With that closed stance, she is keeping her weakness a secret forever. But still I think if I could just get her to turn a little, I could catch a glimpse of whatever she’s hiding there, her hurt, that first thing Chester whispered into her ear that will always makes her grin, the whimper she’ll never let slip, not even in the end. No, our labor is all that matters, her body is saying, turned so you can’t see the toll or the energy the love takes, but you just know the little bit of warmth it puts off, the light.
The light. In a few hours, my father will be up. He will be lumbering through the early morning routine in light just like this. Sometimes, when I was older, I would still be awake to hear his first few steps thump from the other end of the house, and I would stay up and listen as the slow, intermittent work of waking gathered momentum until he was full steam down the hallway, his hard heels rattling the walls as he limped past my bedroom into the kitchen, where in between dishes clinking and his coughing and the cracking of the antique chair where he laced up his boots, there were these little raised silences into which I could hear him sigh for the half-life in everything. Sigh for the cold he’ll carry in his chest until March. For the gigantic steel towers waiting for him out there so cold-soaked and brittle despite being forged from raw material once capable of opening every pore on the face of the boy working the Bessemer, his young and wide eyes now surely blind from so many years in witness to such pure and holy light.
Me, I am witness to the afterglow. I am baptized in the insoluble afterglaze of combusted fossil fuel. Tonight, there is an orange bulb in the belly of every raindrop on my window, and I am pretending one of them is my grandmother, and that another is her father and one his mother and on and on, and that the pale orange in the air is the salve for whatever fire once burned in each of them. I am thinking of another night, my father again. This time he is lying next to me in bed, pointing up into the darkness and telling me if I focus my eyes I will see that there is always color in the air, and light, first in almost imperceptible speckles but then in brilliant billows of yellow and orange, and if I practice, he said, I can learn how to glob the light together and hold it still long enough to mold it into whatever I want. But you have to work quickly, he said, which was perhaps just the urgency of someone desperate to salvage a decent night’s sleep, but now, thinking how young he was then, and how few years removed from the factory on Walker’s Branch—the only job he would ever really love—I wonder if he was not already seeing how quickly he would get here, this morning, twenty-five winters later about to step for the ten thousandth time into overalls, out into this inclement morning where he will have to steel himself in the cab of a truck that won’t warm until maybe the Perry & Gentry Bridge, which will be too late, the Catlettsburg Refinery will already be spread out before him, its incredible orange beating back the predawn blue just like it has done every morning for a hundred years, and even though he could probably calculate for me how long before the pipes start spewing crude into the river, I would rather know how long he was thinking of glass after he was let go. And how often. If all those years ago, lying in my bed, looking up at the light, he was still seeing all the molten glass he’d ever held in front of his face, dreaming of picking it back up one day, once things settled, once the kids got a little older. Or if he knew by then it would never happen, was not thinking about glass at all, or what it looks like in the first moment it comes thrumming from the melt—its unrefined brightness, its promise—in that brief window of time one has before the orange settles in.
Jad Adkins has published essays in Fourth Genre, Sonora Review, the Pinch, Appalachian Heritage, Jelly Bucket, and elsewhere. He is also the nonfiction editor of Pinball.