"Knock-Out Drum" by Luke Muyskens

Luke Muyskens

Luke Muyskens

Luke Muyskens’ fiction, poetry, and humor has appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Digital Americana, and One Throne Magazine. He was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, though he now resides in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is pursuing an MFA through Queens University of Charlotte, and earned a bachelor’s degree from St. John's University.

Knock-Out Drum

I stand on the edge of a plain. Its grass is like hair combed east, ash-gray and trembling in the silent night wind. Vegetation gives way to raw earth, varying only in size and shape of granules, not in capacity for life. Stones trip light that should’ve already gone, in which a far hill flickers. Little but the light’s grinding source is discernible in the smoky void between the grass and hill. Clearly there is no life here. The air shimmers like a bat, though nothing flies, because there is nothing to eat; nothing to feed. Telling size from distance becomes difficult on the flat plain. Black sky folds into the ground below. The sky’s celestial perforations are clogged with smoke from the flares—open fires which burn evenly across the Oil fields.


Aug 29, 2012, Re: Complaint
Email from: Marcus Gille
To: Liam Caldwell

I wish there was more I could do. I’ve done some research, and there are no laws in North Dakota explicitly banning what we refer to as ‘hate crimes.’ Since no physical assault occurred, harassment, stalking, and even vandalism are difficult charges to pursue. I wish there was more I could do. 

Marcus Gille, HR Representative, Intersections
Intersections is an Equal Opportunity Employer.


Rig 357 is acting up. I coil tubing around my forearm and vault from the truck bed, sinking into a few inches of loosened soil as I slog to the rig. Several yards from the well, black rivulets carve through the mud. The rig’s flare is low. A dim fog around the bottom means the knock-out drum is malfunctioning. Too much liquid is coming through the feed inlet, overflowing the vapor-liquid separator and flash-vaporizing. Could be a tubing issue, or something more serious. This rig is close to camp, and I can see the high-sun glare off corrugated roofing. Another rig hand moves to seal the piping as I pull the down-line tube free from the drum. Chemicals seep onto my gloves as I attach the new piece. My hands move deftly in the slime, instinctually predicting the loss of friction. The wrench feels like an extension of my arm. When the tubing is secure, I shout to the other hand and liquid resumes its flow.

I examine the tubing I removed. The vapor is already dissipating, and the flare’s roar is intensifying, but there are no cracks in the tube. It’s rigid, meaning someone recently tried the same fix. If the rig continues to malfunction, it could be a disaster. When we’re driving away, I watch from the truck bed. The flare is high, but I think pressure is building. The knock-out drum might overflow again.


I have trouble understanding why some men are born without empathy. I’m afraid for my life. Have the office men ever felt this fear? The fear of Christ? A chemical smell burns my throat. Is it the pesticides for the rats? Or the smell of plastic walls and ceilings? Or the smell of the color blue, a chemical in its own right, seeping from fluorescent lamps and towering floodlights at night, carrying over in the day’s memory? No, it’s undeniably the ever-present smell of fracking fluid that permeates my skin. A cough rattles my body. Am I still drunk from the bar? Footprints, the memory of feet, trail from my boots to the door of my small dormitory. The tracks look like paint, or blood, but they’re Oil. The same Oil on my fire retardant overalls, hay-colored shirt, and skin. Oil that requires a heavy scrub with pungent, chemical orange soap, coarse with synthetic sand, like frac sand. How strange, that such a similar material is used to tear Oil from the earth and my skin. 

Looking again at the tracks, I notice the open door. It should not be open, considering what’s been happening. I close the door forcefully and flip the lock, but there’s no deadbolt. The door feels weak, because there’s a skeleton key, and for fifty bucks, I have no sliver of doubt the hall manager would give me up. I wonder how much it would cost for the lives of the office men in Orange City to submit to the turning power of a key. If I had the cash, I’d open their rooms at night and show them how unsafe sleeping can be. I’m sure they rest comforted by their God, but they don’t know that Oil is God, and Oil will not watch them. I stand in the middle of my room and examine the uneven white square on the eggshell wall. My floor supervisor gave me the wrong color, probably so I’d be reminded of the epitaph spray-painted in orange over my bed. Faggot, the white square reads again. I wonder if the supervisor knew how accurately the name of the color ‘eggshell’ describes the fragility of my shelter. 

The door handle lurches in its socket. There’s no peephole, so I call through the crack, Who’s there? The delicacy of my voice surprises me. It almost cracks, because I haven’t used it since I worked last, on the seventeenth. I only yell on the rig, so it goes from loud to absent with no Who’s there in between. 

Ruiz, the rattling doorknob replies. I picture Ruiz. His narrow nose and soft hair that looks too fine for Oil fields. I picture myself with a more solid face, close-shaved. I’ve been off for six days, and no gas mask seal requires me to shave, so my skin is rough. 

Liam, I gotta talk to ya. Lemme in, Ruiz demands. I don’t know if I can trust him; if he poured sand in my gas tank. I have no choice but to let him in, because I can’t think the world poured sand in my gas tank, even if it did. I let him in. I gotta talk to ya, man he says. I’m not part of this. I’ve got nothin’ to do with it. He’s got something behind his back.

Part of what? I ask, hoping I don’t already know. I see fear in his feet, which don’t stop moving. I move behind him to close the door, but Ruiz steps in the way. He’s afraid of me, like he thinks I might hurt him, and I want to hurt him. 

What they’re doing, he says. I’m not involved. 

But you know about it. You know and you’re keeping out. 

My hands are tied, Liam. You know there’s nothing I can do. I’m keeping out. 

You’re fucking implicated, I say with anger, which wrecks him. I see his eyes collapse. You’re the one who fucking told them wht I said in confidence. Matter fact, Ruiz, you piece of shit, this is all your fault. He swallows. Ruiz knows this is his fault, and he might feel bad, but not enough to risk himself. I act angry but understand—I fear for my life. He has the option to fear for his life, and if I did, I would certainly opt out. 

Jesus, he says. I didn’t mean for this to happen. You know that. I know he didn’t. The man has a family, unlike most of the others. Men here with families seem to have forgotten, but he talks about them. That’s why I opened up to him. Or spilled out. 

For what? What’s happening? 

I’m leaving, he says in evasion. I’m going back to Minnesota. I can’t take it out here anymore, man. You should leave too.

I was gonna go to Iowa this week. But those motherfuckers poured frac sand in my gas tank. Didn’t get it fixed until yesterday.

That’s not what I mean. I’m gettin’ out for good. I’m not cut out for the fields, I guess.

I don’t fucking care, I say, which I partially mean. I am cut out for the Oil fields. I am the Oil fields, Ruiz. What’s gonna happen to me? He doesn’t want to say what he’s about to. 

If you go now, you might be able to stop them. But they’ll beat your ass. You should wait until the flames die down. He hands me a small fire extinguisher and disappears. I try to grab his shirt, but I grab the space his shirt formerly occupied and clench its memory. I close the door. When I first arrived at the Man Camp, a caterpillar of cars forty miles longs wound past the gate. A tanker crashed on the only bridge over the only river, and slick crude covered the bridge. Cleaning it was too expensive, so they tore it down.


Sep 13, 2012, Notice
Email from: Intersections HR Team
To: Liam Caldwell, Rig Hand

Your workplace difficulties have come to our attention. We pride ourselves in caring for employees like a family. However, in some instances, we cannot help. During training, you were informed of the hazards in Williston. You were advised to keep personal matters private. Any disregard for advice given during the instructional period removes the mishap from our liability. 

Intersections HR Team
Intersections is an Equal Opportunity Employer.


At first, I think the light is a flare. The fields have been creeping towards our camp, and the fires have reached us. The Bakken is a sunken pool of fermenting life under everywhere. Then I realize the fire is too small to be natural gas. It’s flickering inside a car. A Mustang. I don’t believe the Mustang is mine, because that means my body is aflame. Vandalism means you wish to destroy its owner, or yourself. I don’t have time to be angry before I’m hit by fear. The fire is still contained in the backseat, where it licks at the seats and fingers holes in the doors, hungry to seep into the gas lines and expand beyond itself. The fire only wants to grow, not caring if it exhausts the source. 

I look around before approaching the car. I’m afraid the men are waiting, but the night is quiet. There’s nowhere to hide under the floodlights illuminating a white sea of cars. Nowhere but the black plume billowing from my car. The fire appears pale. Fire in the light looks like its heat is weak, but the intensity of its burn is the same. 

A groan escapes the car and I run to it. The back window is shattered. I push the fire extinguisher from Ruiz through the space, pull out the pin, and squeeze the trigger. My eyes close to the flurrying snow, and my mind closes to the burning of my fingers. When the powder stops, I drop the empty can and look inside. The air smells clean, like soap, but I can tell there’s a layer of soot beneath that will hide under my fingernails, reminding me. The air is opaque with floating particles, but in the cloud I see flickering orange, like prayers across a prairie. I remove my t-shirt, wrench open the scalding hot door, and whip at the remaining flames. The fires jump before going out. I try to cover my mouth, but I feel powder mix with gritty ash on my teeth, and the acrid char simmers on my tongue. My eyes burn, and tears cause the remaining flames to lurch. 

When the flames are gone, I collapse in the powder settled on the driver’s seat. I take out my keys, whose rabbit foot luck has clearly run out, and click them into the ignition. Surprisingly, the engine roars and radio static blares from the radio and drowns me. I slump over the steering wheel and sob. My forehead rumbles with the purring engine. I run my fingers across the leather seat beneath me, which bubbled in the heat, and think of how I shouldn’t be here when they come back. I get out, lock my car despite the smashed window, and hurry back to the camp. As I walk through the entrance, I see two men emerge from a room down the hall. They’re dirty and dark, in contrast to the white walls, and I turn quickly away before seeing who they are. 

Hey, one of them calls. I recognize Graham’s low bark. Hey, Liam. Wait up, he calls again, but I walk the opposite direction. I know he’s angry, because every man in this camp is angry. Testosterone echoes between the walls, to be reabsorbed by surrounding men. Does their aggression stem solely from the reverberation and amplification of hormones? Any normal social structure would quell the mania in which these men find themselves. Between the crank, sleep depravity, porn, work, and loneliness, can you hold their actions against them? Fuck yes, I absolutely can. I lock myself in my room and lean against the door, until Graham tries the handle. I spring into the middle of the room.

Liam. We gotta talk to you about somethin’, he demands. I say nothing. It’s real important. Gotta talk right now. I hear them whisper, but can’t separate words, like the waves in the ocean. Their whispers sound like a hush. Be quiet, Liam. 

We’ll come back when you’re feelin’ better, they promise. I lie on my covers and try to find solace. I used to think loneliness was nice, on Sioux Falls tech school nights. I loved the moment when I turned my back from Eric after holding him, and held the wall. I thought the moment was sincere, like, This is how I know you’re here when I can’t feel you. I trust you, the wall, and the bed to still be there when I wake up. But now I feel like holding him was the sincere part, and that I shouldn’t have given him up. If he wasn’t in my arms I could I have known he was there at all?


The Pumpjack Rabbit is packed with men. I switched from Budweiser to Jack and Coke an hour ago, so my vision is swimming. I squeeze the bar stool, finding comfort in my tactile perception of the vinyl. Orange lights above the pool table float in the bar mirror, like fish fighting around a bend. I hear a burst of violent laughter surface behind me through the dense, drunken noise. They probably didn’t expect me to come here tonight. If I damage myself enough, there’s little else they can do. Drunk like this, I’m closer to death than they could take me. The room smells like puke, smoke, raw bodies, caged animals, and pure grain alcohol. I wish I owned a gun. I slip a hand into my jacket and pretend I have a weapon. Taking my elbow off the bar allows the liquor to pull me towards the floor, but I manage to swing a hand out and catch the stool before I fall. Jesus.

I think I hear my name, so I peer over my shoulder. Men are tearing rotten flesh from carrion. They’re talking about the hilarious prank they pulled on that queer kid, Liam. Flame flickers as one lights a cigarette. He’s showing them how he burned my car. The fuckers are laughing.  Their predatory forms blend into a mutating mass of muscle, aggression, and anger directed towards me. I turn back to my drink.


Sep 15, 2012, Hey
Email from: marcus.gille7@yahoo.com, To: Liam Caldwell

I got transferred. They were tired of me stirring the pot. I sent too many applications through with “foreign-sounding names.” Your case was the last straw. I wish they stated their homophobia in writing so we could actually sue them. I filed a formal complaint with my district supervisor on your behalf, but got nothing. 

Marcus Gille  


This sandwich looks bad. The kindness of one person does not erase the animosity of a group, especially if that person is contributor to their cause, no matter how regretful. Especially when their kindness is impotent, but not offering that flaccid hope would be worse. The salad also looks bad, and the coffee, bad, but I have to eat, no matter how afraid I am. I want to grab them and escape, but the cafeteria is more crowded than anticipated. The five a.m. crew must’ve just come back from the field. I wait in line with my tray, scanning faces in the room between two Oil-covered men. I don’t recognize anyone, and hope they don’t recognize me. The line shuffles forward. The line always shuffles forward. 

Hey, I hear to my left. I nearly drop my tray. I turn to find a man I recognize. His name might be Jake. Why didn’t you talk to us last night, Maybe Jake demands. He was the other man with Graham. Jake is drunk, though the sun isn’t up. He probably drank in the truck on his way back from the field. No alcohol is allowed in the camp, on punishment of eviction, so most men keep booze in their cars. Crank is easier to hide. Being drunk in the camp, however, is not against the rules. I don’t drink the first morning back. I sleep, but drinking follows soon after.

Sorry, I didn’t hear you. 

Bullshit you didn’t, Jake says, leaning close enough to smell booze on his breath. Bourbon. I know you fuckin’ heard us. 

I was tired. Didn’t feel like talking. 

Why not, Jake sneers. We just wanted to chat. Didn’t mean any harm. Just a friendly chat. Jake closes an eye and wobbles a bit. Maybe a drunk man is more perceptive to things like the earth spinning. The movement puts him off his balance. 

I don’t know, Jake. Didn’t seem friendly. 

The fuck you say to me? Jake says. The checkout line has moved, but I haven’t.

Hey lovebirds, the man behind me calls. Move your asses. Jake whips around, almost unable to stop spinning. 

We’re not together, he shouts. He turns back to me. I’m a friendly fuckin’ guy. Of course it was friendly. He’s swaying harder. I know they wanted to test me, to see if I would say anything about the car. They knew I knew they started the fire, so if I mouthed off, they’d have an excuse to taste blood. I couldn’t prove their guilt, so they could get away with beating the hell out of me. Jake sneers. You don’t believe me?

I believe you. 

Well, next time you better fucking stop, or…he grabs the front of my shirt. I jerk away and he slips, falling full-force into me. My tray crashes to the floor and the sandwich explodes, sticky meat flying scattering across the linoleum. I wrench Jake from my chest. His drunk ass flops onto the floor, and I run down the hall towards my room. I sprint under rows of fluorescent lights, turning my head to see if anyone followed. They didn’t. My boot-steps echo like knocks of alarm. As I run, each room blurs with the next, my room and the rooms of men trying to hurt me. Anger travels between every door, including itself, to be received as pain. When I reach my door, I realize I can’t bring myself inside. Instead, I run out to the parking lot. The sun has broken over the lot, but the floodlights are still on, sterile light mixing with the warmth of the morning. I run through the lot, dodging trucks and muscle cars, including my own, where I see a climbing tendril of smoke that I know isn’t there. Sunlight glints off windshields into my eyes; flashing moments where something distant and impossible fills me entirely. 

I reach the edge of the lot and hop over the curb. The soil is wet. My boots stick to the ground as I continue to run, pace slowing when I enter the prairie. I turn to see the camp, squat and low, asserting itself over the field. No one is there, so I continue at a steady hike. My breath is running out but my lungs swell with cold morning air. My foot slips and I fall to my knees. As I stand, I raise a hand coated in mud, the only part of me I know, unfamiliar. 

I look up. On my right is the highway—the pipeline—out. On my left is Rig 357. I stop to watch it churn, imagining its mechanical intricacies. The flare is almost extinguished. The other rigs on the prairie glow orange, but Rig 357 is dark. The flame only illuminates a soft blanket of fog on the ground. Even from here, I can hear flashing vapor hiss. If I don’t disconnect the knock-out drum now, the rig will break down. I turn away and continue walking, away from the rig, boots gathering black mud, like Oil, towards the road, away from the belly of openness.


The sun breaks red and alone over the plain, like the rupturing artery of a calf, settling in pools on the dust. Black clouds litter the sky like pulled cotton, elongating into trails like rips in brilliant fabric. Waves of tall grass bend, bowing and rising in never-ending rite, carried on the wind. In the distance, Black Hills move imperceptibly into the plain, shrouded in the dawn fog. Still, the flares burn in outcrops across the fields, between towering derricks and churning pumpjacks. Machinery grinds slowly into the earth, turning in widening, deepening holes. Black smoke reaches into the clouds, penetrating their stillness, spreading a film of soot over the sky. All across the prairie, fires burn, but I am not there.