EXCERPT: The Old Reactor, by David Ohle

Novelist David Ohle enjoys a staunch cult following owed primarily to his classic Motorman, which Gordon Lish has called one of his favorite books. Motorman follows the hapless everyman Moldenke as he navigates the gray areas of a dystopic world of government moons and manmade humanoids called “jellyheads.” The new issue of the New Orleans Review features an excerpt from Ohle’s forthcoming novel, The Old Reactor, which will be published by Dzanc books. In it, Ohle, a New Orleans native who has lived in Lawrence, Kansas, for many years, describes Moldenke’s early days among setting most Room 220 readers will find familiar.

From The Old Reactor:

In those days Moldenke was so full of passion for the labor movement his ears bled when he spoke of it. He could be seen day after day going up and down Esplanade Avenue in the company of a few like-minded friends passing out his pamphlet, Fair Play for the Working Stiff. At any time, though, his bowel could make sudden demands. Wherever he picketed or passed out leaflets, the location of the nearest public toilet was always in mind. The condition had come upon him when he was in his teens. Doctors told him it was a stubborn inflammation that could last a lifetime. From then he thought of it as his angry bowel, a constant companion.

It was also a time when his dear aunt lay dying of a persistent and growing abdominal teratoma. She was tucked into a narrow room at the Broad Street Charnel House, living out her last days. It was an awful place and Moldenke hated going there, yet he did religiously every Sunday.

His aunt’s surgeon, the well-known scientist Edgar Zanzetti, could do no more. It was now up to her to settle into dying. The growth protruded from her abdomen and to Moldenke looked like an apple under a tablecloth. Weakened muscles in her drooping lids required that she wear small lid-lifting appliances made of gold plated rods and rubber knobs. She was a plaster mold of her former self who’d come to look like an illustration in a medical text.

When he went to see her on those anxious Sunday afternoons, his stomach burned and his hands shook. He’d been living in her house on Esplanade for nine months, keeping an eye on things while she underwent surgery after surgery. He paid no rent, nor had he done a very good job keeping an eye on things. The house had been broken into many times, yielding antique silver services, jewelry, rare first editions, musical instruments, and a beaver coat for the thieves. They came in almost nightly while Moldenke slept upstairs with cotton in his ears to shut out the noise of the streetcars running on Esplanade all night.

He paid no particular interest to maintenance or sanitation, either. The rusting gutters sagged with a load of leaves and twigs, windows had been left open during rainstorms, rotting sections of Berber carpet and buckling tiles in the kitchen. Rarely had the dishes been washed, the vacuum cleaner had never been taken from its closet under the stairs and there were generations of wharf rats living under the kitchen sink.

[Moldenke visits his aunt in the charnel house on Broad.]

A week later, when he visited his aunt again, she was barely conscious, very close to succumbing to spreading of the teratoma. He didn’t think she would be around by the following Sunday. For the entire week, he devoted his time to more-or-less arranging her funeral and burial. When he arrived at Eternity Meadows, hoping to find an affordable gravesite, there were some of his pro-labor friends picketing outside the gate. Their banner read, “A Living Wage for the Living Worker.” One of them, Ozzie, an old friend of Moldenke’s, made no effort to conceal the small caliber pistol he carried in his belt.

A bystander warned anyone approaching, “Don’t cross the line, friend. He’s been threatening to shoot people.”

While Moldenke took the warning seriously, he felt sure his friend would make an exception in his case, which he did, but not without a great deal of bluster and display, going so far as to draw his pistol and wave it in Moldenke’s face. “Are you with us or against us? You haven’t been picketing.”

“There’s going to be a death in the family, an aunt, my last living relative. After her, I’m all alone in the world. She’ll need a place to be buried. I can’t be picketing today.”

“All right, go on in. You can have an hour.”

The cemetery was a pleasant, quiet place to be that afternoon, Moldenke thought, especially with his pals keeping everyone out. The weather had turned suddenly cold, though. Still, there were thick morning glory vines, dying now, that had weaved themselves through and around all the spaces in the chain-link fence. Moldenke recalled summer walks in the cemetery when dragonflies flitted from one tombstone to another and little green lizards atop a few of them showed their dewlaps. For a moment he felt utterly calm, collected, and at peace. But as he looked among the empty plots for one that seemed affordable, he was stricken by a terrible urgency in his abdomen. There would be no time to find a toilet even if he ran back to his aunt’s house, or a to a public privy, so he walked, skipped, and trotted as fast as he could to the tallest headstone he could see and squatted behind it.

When he was finished, he used the only thing handy to wipe—a bouquet of withered flowers from the nearest vase. After standing and belting his pants, he bowed his head, clasped his hands and addressed an apology to the deceased. “I’m so sorry. I hope you’ll forgive me for being such a dog. My bowel can’t be controlled. Don’t worry, though. The sun will come along and dry it out in a day or two and the wind will blow it away.”

There was a police officer on the scene when Moldenke left the cemetery. The picketers sat on the ground, handcuffed, bleeding from head and facial wounds. One was being questioned as the officer tore up his living wage banner. Moldenke made a sharp turn and hurried down Esplanade toward City Canal. But before he was across the silver-painted swing bridge, the officer yelled, “Hey! You! Stop!”

Moldenke waited until the officer made his way to the bridge.

“Yes officer?”

“One of the gravediggers says he saw you take a crap on someone’s resting place. True?”

“Yes, but I have a chronic condition with my bowels. Sudden attacks. Almost no warning.”

“No matter how you sugarcoat it, that’s desecrating a grave. You’re going to Altobello.”

“How could I be sent there for this? You’re just trying to fill a quota to populate the place. I’ve got a dead aunt. I have to take care of her body.”

“Don’t smart mouth me.” The officer cuffed Moldenke. “Shitting on a grave is serious business.”

“Who will bury my aunt if I’m sent to Altobello? Who’ll arrange some kind of ceremony and all that?”

The officer hiked up his shiny blue pants. “You’ve got a couple of weeks before you leave. You better hope she goes pretty quick.”