We held our usual positions in the Epic Electric office, waiting for our daily assignments. Brian and Bob sat on the two old theater seats just inside the door, talking softly. Dan spun circles on a little stool in front of a drafting table on the other side of the room. I was perched between them on the storefront window ledge, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. Mike leaned against the front desk, shaking and snapping his busted lighter, grumbling at no one in particular. Behind the desk, our secretary, Marilyn, sat working quietly while her daughter sat next to her, creating her latest crayon masterpiece. Marilyn’s son, Michael, was sprawled out over a heating vent in the middle of the room, sleeping in his pajamas. We were all there except Tommy, Epic Electric’s newest electrician.
A little, blue hatchback whipped into an empty parking space directly in front of the door. A small, plump woman burst out of the driver’s side door and marched to the back of the car. Her hair was the color of a construction barrel, curled and tightly cropped. Her face was the color of a brake light. She opened the hatch and began furiously tugging at a tool bucket, trying to lift it out of the car. The passenger’s side door opened, and Tommy slowly stepped out, moved away from the car, and raised his hands into a defensive position.
After four determined attempts to remove the tool bucket out of the hatch, the woman let out a full-figured scream from the core of her lungs. After a couple of deep breaths, she decided to empty the bucket one tool at a time. In one awkward, uninterrupted motion, she grabbed a tape measure, cocked her little arm, threw it at Tommy, and called him an ‘asshole’. Tommy stumbled out of the tape measure’s path and pleaded, “C’mon baby, please.”
Next came a pair of tin snips. “Fucking lying…”
The tin snips flipped open and bounced off the sidewalk into Tommy’s kneecap. While the little man bent over to hold is knee, she hurled the hammer, “Pig.”
The hammer was off target, and Tommy straightened up, “It was nothing, baby.”
The woman paused long enough to change tactics. She grabbed a handful of pliers, wrenches, and screwdrivers and tossed them onto the sidewalk. After a couple handfuls, she pulled out the bucket, dumped the rest of the tools onto the street, and flung the empty bucket at him.
“Your stuff will be out front by the trash.”
She shut the hatch, marched back to the door, got in, and drove away.
Tommy began to pick up his tools at his usual leisurely pace. I followed Bob and Brian out to help. Mike came out, leaned against the window, lit a cigarette, said ‘Tin snips are a real bitch’, and guffawed.
While we were outside helping Tommy, Dave, the owner of Epic Electric, popped his head out of the door and asked me to meet him in his office. Then, he asked Mike to take Bob, Brian, and Dan to the Gahanna storage facility job site. When I got to Dave’s office, he was on the phone. Fifteen minutes later, he asked me to take Tommy ad the company’s black Nissan pick-up out to an undeveloped, suburban housing development called Maple Run to wire up a privacy gate.
When I walked up front to find Tommy, everyone was gone except Marilyn and her kids. Michael was still sleeping on the heating vent. Marilyn and Cassidy were sticking drawings to the front desk with magnets. They were a family of constant sniffling. Michael was especially sick. He had a respiratory disease that left him pale and weak. Marilyn was often away at the hospital with him. Cassidy was healthier and playful.
“Want to see my pen?” she asked me, holding out a candy cane pen.
“Mmmm, does it taste good?” I asked.
“It doesn’t taste. It writes,” she handed me a new drawing of her brother in a hospital bed. I knew it was her brother, because she had written ‘Michael’ and drawn an arrow to the boy in the bed. I studied the picture until I regained my composure.
“That’s really nice, Cassidy,” I said. I asked Marilyn if she had seen Tommy.
“He’s in the back,” she said, “Did you get a new pair of jeans? They look real nice.”
Marilyn looked me up and down and smiled. She loved to flirt. Marilyn was a big woman, tall, about 5’ 9”, and large, probably 230 pounds. She preferred tight cut-off shirts that showed her pierced, occasionally infected, belly button just beneath the hem.
“I got them just for you,” I said. They were not a new pair of jeans.
I found Tommy in the Nissan smoking a Camel.
“You all right?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m going to need to find a place to stay though.” Tommy said in his gravelly voice. Then, surprisingly, he laughed with satisfaction. I considered inviting him to take my couch for a millisecond; however, the thought of my grad school roommate’s reaction of finding a 43-year-old alcoholic standing in front of our refrigerator in his boxer shorts remained in my mind for a few seconds.
“That li’l woman of yours is a firecracker.”
“She’s not my woman anymore. It’s over. She said ‘this is it’ about five hundred times this morning.” Tommy exhaled.
“Hey, I need to stop by Byrne’s. I got some copper in the back I need to sell.”
The week before, Tommy and Brian had split up a large amount of Romex leftover from a residential job site. Copper was a valuable metal at the salvage yards. The plastic coating needed to be stripped from the copper wires before taking it to the yard. Brian liked to strip the Romex in his recliner while he watched NASCAR over the weekend. I couldn’t imagine Tommy with the patience to sit and strip wire, but he had a nice pile ready. As far as I was concerned, stripping wire is the same as collecting aluminum cans or rolling skating on grass, a lot of work and little payoff.
We stopped at Byrne’s Salvage. It was at Cleveland Avenue and North Broadway, on the way to Maple Run. They weighed Tommy’s copper and cut him a check. Unfortunately, the banks weren’t open yet. Fortunately, Chuck’s, one of the few bars open at eight in the morning, was half a block south of the salvage yard. I dropped Tommy off at Chuck’s and took the Nissan to Burger King for some French toast sticks and a Coke.
It didn’t take us long to find out Tommy was an alcoholic. Because he didn’t have a driver’s license, Dave was forced to send him out with another electrician. We quickly realized that if we didn’t give in to his requests to stop at a gas station in the morning, so he could buy a couple of Busch Light tallboys, he was useless the entire day.
When I got back to Chuck’s, there were exactly four people inside: a tired, old bartender who I assumed was Chuck; two young black kids playing a slow game of pool; and Tommy, happy with his first drink of the day. Tommy was jabbering excitedly to Chuck, and Chuck was nodding, holding a cup of coffee.
“Hans, pull up a stool. We got time for one more beer.”
Chuck looked at me. I shook my head no. Chuck nodded. The kids at the pool table were just killing time after an all-nighter, Chuck had been planted in his spot for forty years, and I wasn’t happy or comfortable in a bar while I was on the clock, but Tommy was jacked up. His enthusiasm evaporated fast when he realized the rest of us weren’t in the mood.
“Let’s go. The banks are open,” I said.
“Give me a couple of minutes.”
Defeated, he started to wring his hands over of his beer. Tommy’s hands were huge, swollen, and covered from fingertips to wrists in warts, scars, bone spurs, and little craters. His hand weren’t the hands of a hard working man; they were the hands of a masochistic, bare-knuckle boxer that used brick walls for sparring partners. They dwarfed his small frame. They did, however, match his oversized, thick-framed glasses held together with electrical tape. Tommy was all glasses and hands, an easy caricature.
Tommy caught me staring at his hands and said, “The union forced me to see a shrink for my drinking. I blew off rehab a couple of times. The shrink said it was common with construction workers, drinking. Takes away the aches and pains.” It was bullshit. We both knew it. He wasn’t trying to justify anything to me. He was making up something to say to a college boy like me until the beer was gone. Still, those hands had to hurt.
Tommy slammed the truck door shut, “Fuckers won’t take my check. Let’s try the bank at the grocery store.” After we made two more stops, I told him it was Fast Checks or nothing, so for a seven dollar fee, Tommy finally cashed in his $42 of copper. By the time we made it out near Maple Run, it was 11:30. Time for lunch. We went to Daley’s for some home-cooked beef and noodles. Tommy picked at his while I inhaled mine. After lunch, Tommy needed his sustenance. We stopped at a gas station for two Busch Light tallboys and a 48 oz. soda cup and a straw to hide the beer.
It was a little after 1:00 when we pulled into Maple Run, which was when the rain came. A thick downpour. After 15 minutes, Tommy had polished off his first tallboy, and it was obvious that the rain was here to stay. He set his cup on the dashboard, curled up against the door, and fell asleep in an instant. I called Dave and left a message. It was unlikely he would call back. Dave seldom changed plans midday. There was nothing to do but fiddle with the radio and daydream. I woke Tommy a little before 3:00. We steeled ourselves and ran out into the downpour. I opened up the keypad box and a junction box and Tommy gave them a quick inspection. Back in the truck and thoroughly drenched, Tommy drew up a little schematic. Tomorrow, I would come back and wire up the gate.
As soon as I pulled the truck into the shop, I ran off to the bathroom. I retrieved my tools from the truck and headed out through the front towards my car. The lights were off, but there was enough cloudy daylight streaming through the windows to see the outlines of little Tommy sitting on Marilyn’s lap kissing her fiercely.
“See ya tomorrow,” I said.
Marilyn released her grip on the little man and sniffled. Tommy looked at me, giggled deep, and said ‘See ya’.
The plump woman with the construction-barrel hair was not bluffing. She kicked Tommy out for good. After that day, Tommy walked to work. Occasionally, we stopped at his new residence to pick up his tools or some tallboys or drop him off after work. It was a modest house in slight disrepair. An empty, rusty above-ground pool monopolized the front yard. An old station wagon and an older conversion van monopolized the driveway. A rotating cast of dirty, disheveled boarders ambled about between the house and a couple of chairs under a makeshift awning attached to the conversion van. It always looked like someone had brought home the neighborhood bar from the night before.
Eventually, Tommy had to leave Epic Electric. He became more and more careless with his drinking. The two or three tallboys a day turned into six or seven. His hygiene dwindled. He couldn’t hide the beer smell on his breath or the unmistakable body odor of a spiraling alcoholic. A couple of general contractors banned him from their job sites at the same time, and Dave didn’t have any other work for him.
No one heard anything from or about Tommy until about six months later. Our new secretary, Stephanie, saw him while she was waiting at a stoplight on her way home from work. Tommy was waving wildly at her from the sidewalk. She didn’t recognize him until he stumbled off the sidewalk and yelled, “Hey Stephanie. What’s going on, girl?” Before she could roll her window down and say ‘hi’, Tommy spotted a police cruiser waiting behind her car. He straightened up, saluted her, and marched down the sidewalk like a Russian soldier in the same direction he came from.
Hans Hetrick is the author of Fighting Love, a collection of poems, and a number children’s books published by Capstone.