Fall 2004, Volume 22.1
Joseph M. Ditta
Joseph M. Ditta (PhD, University of Missouri-Columbia) teaches American literature and creative writing at Dakota Wesleyan University. He has published short fiction in Weber Studies and Connecticut Review, while his poetry has appeared in The Centennial Review, The Missouri Review, The Illinois Review, The Mississippi Valley Review, Voices in Italian Americana, and others.
"One would never see an animal—you name it, dog or cat or porpoise, I don't care—you would never see an animal hold up one of its own to ridicule. That's where people differ from the animals, I tell you. People are the only creatures ever to come to live on this earth who hold up their own kind to ridicule. Once you know that about a man, you've got him pretty well placed. Stay away. He's human. Nothing good can come of it. Go associate with the ants."
They had all gone still and become wrinkle-browed contemplators of their beer, though the air around grew stifling with choked laughter.
John Fletcher was called "Fletch" by his co-workers. He was a generous and gentle sort, but when anyone made fun of him, he could become sour real fast. Poor Fletch had just lost his job again and was afraid to go home. Someone had remarked about the pending black eye, for his wife was a two-hundred pounder who ruled over him with such authority he was always the first to leave the tavern and "do his duty on the home front," and laughter had erupted up and down the long mahogany bar. He didn't take to being made fun of, and when he fell into this mood, which happened often enough, the others would get real serious, until he was gone, whereupon they'd laugh till they had to pee.
Fletch drained his beer and rose from the stool. He cast his eye up and down the bar and walked stoically out the door. Not one among the crew, waiting till he was out of earshot to break into laughter, felt even the slightest sympathy for him. They all had their troubles. Fletch would get on. He always did. Besides, they expected he'd be back at work in a few days. This wasn't the first time the foreman threw Fletch out of the shop.
Fletch was always aggravating the foreman, but he was the best welder and metal worker in the shop, and everybody knew it. He could do the most difficult of jobs and did, routinely. Perhaps this added to why he found no sympathy among the crew. What aggravated the foreman was Fletch's penchant for preparation. He'd spend more time looking a job over than doing the work, and when a particular job had to be done before work could progress in other areas, Fletch would sometimes idle the whole shop. At times like this, the foreman would lose his usual composure. This time, the old man threw Fletch out of the shop physically and told him never to come back. It was near the end of the day. Too many others had been idled for too long.
And when the foreman did the unexpected, closed the shop for the day with little or nothing done on the huge project—a pair of weirdly designed double boilers for the new convention center, each of which called for an array of interior baffles Fletch found too curious and intricate, causing him to study out the problem for the better part of the day—everyone figured this time it just might be the end for Fletch. Might be. But more than likely he'd be back, if he survived telling his wife he'd been sacked again. She was a brutal woman and poor Fletch more than once had come back to work with a black eye.
Fletch got home to the tender mercy of an empty house. He was earlier than usual, there being still an hour to normal quitting time. Thea, his wife, would get home at the usual time, which meant he had an hour and a half to himself, a quiet time he didn't know what to do with, the house so still it made him feel like an intruder. He walked with deliberate ease to the kitchen, trying to keep the floor from squeaking.
Everything was neat and clean. Thea was a tidy type. Their breakfast things were washed and put away, and a dish towel was folded neatly and hung over the front of the sink. He thought of her walking in, all in a rush to get supper up. He felt that pull in his stomach he usually got when he had to confront her about getting sacked. It meant the loss of a few days' pay and maybe more, and a tight month, even falling behind on the big bills. Thea was right, of course, to get angry. But her anger boiled and boiled, like water in a pressure cooker, until it finally popped her lid. Then, he had to run for cover, for she would try to thrash him, and if she caught him, he'd have to return to the shop, bearing the humiliation for all to see.
He had one really bad habit that caused all the misery in his life—and it wasn't drinking, of course, or fornicating, or any of the things most men suffer from. His bad habit was his penchant for studying things out before he committed to anything he had to do. This trait always made him slow in school and caused him to be regarded as dumb. But when he finally finished his lessons, whatever it was he had learned was stitched into the fabric of his life. Trouble came with taking tests—he seldom finished the first question when the test would be over, and the remaining ninety-nine went unanswered. Such an oddness could never be accommodated in the public schools, so Fletch emerged profoundly unlearned; his was a genius for which the time and place of his rushed life had no need. Had John Fletcher been born a hundred years before, when the world turned according to tables measured in seasons and Time marched at a human pace, he might have been a man of substance whose days were filled with honor and respect.
The project he had been working on at the shop troubled him. The design of the double boilers was seriously flawed, and though John Fletcher could see it was so, he had to work out all the details of its wrongness in his head before he would say so. The foreman jumped too soon. The irascible old man had no patience for Fletch's dawdling, but he needed Fletch to do the work others couldn't, and so he had to tolerate him, but he wouldn't do that without making him miserable. This job, however, was very big, and time was an essential factor in the shop's performance. More jobs would flow from it. More men could be hired. The foreman not only lost his patience this day, he erupted in exasperated despair over Fletch's endless meditations on those interior baffles. It was a great mistake. Time would show Fletch had been right to be concerned, and had he been suffered to be himself and let alone to do his job, seven men and two women would not have lost their lives when the boilers exploded.
But all this Fletch never knew. For at the moment he sat in the kitchen and began to prepare himself to confront Thea, a change had taken place in him. Fletch made a decision—in just barely over a minute. He decided to leave. To leave forever. To leave the shop, to leave Thea, to leave his life as he was living it, to change himself, to make himself over into an entirely new person. It had taken twelve years, really, to make this decision. Under the surface of his otherwise calm exterior, Fletch had been thinking it through. It began when Thea punched him for the first time, and he had to endure the mirth of his co-workers. That happened in the first year of the their marriage, when she was still pretty and slender, and the shock of it was sheer thunder in Fletch's mind, leaving him baffled and disconcerted, a condition that set him to deliberating what to do. The last minute was only the minute in which he concluded that deliberation.
Deciding to leave was the easy part. Deciding where to go—now that was a challenge. John Fletcher threw up an image of himself lying on the sand under an umbrella, sipping a pina colada. It was an image that came to him from time to time as a type of all the possibilities life had to offer. He fetched the Atlas from the living room closet and set it on the kitchen table. He began with utmost care to examine it, as though the pages were bible leaves. Soon, he was totally absorbed. Luckily, the kitchen clock was on the wall facing him, and as he sat back to contemplate a double-page spread of the continental U.S., his eye fell upon the clock and he saw, with a surge of anxiety, that it was ten after five. Thea would be home in twenty minutes. The thought affected him like a fire under his chair.
He leaped up and without thinking ran to the bedroom and began to empty his drawers and closet on the bed. When all his clothes were gathered and sorted, he looked at his wristwatch. Five twenty-five! "E-E-E-E!" he shrieked, sweat pouring from his brow. He ran out the front door, leaving everything behind, checking his wallet as he scrambled to the car. "Sixty dollars! Damn," he thought. His heart racing, he wheeled out of the neighborhood just as Thea came off the highway. It was a narrow escape.
"At five thirty p.m., Friday, June twenty-third, in the first year of the third millennium," he said gravely to himself, "John Fletcher departed Romeoville, Illinois, and pointed his car towards a new life." Certain he had done the right thing, he was filled with a sense of destiny. He was not, however, filled with a sense of destination. He had no idea where to go or what to do next. He thought about staying in town and going to the bank the next day to get more money. But he didn't like that idea. Since he was leaving, he ought, by rights, to just leave. He and Thea didn't have much. She was entitled to what they had. He would feel better tomorrow, he thought, if he took nothing with him. He made his way to Naperville and stopped at a shady sidewalk café for something to eat. He thought about his choices as he ate, for here he would get on I-88, and he could go east or west: Boston or Seattle, New York City or San Francisco, Big Sur or Key West. Thinking about these options made him physically sick. The beach umbrella image came to him. It was a powerful motivator, but he knew it was just a dream.
He ate his French fries methodically, lifting them slowly, one at a time, dipping each in a puddle of ketchup on the side of his plate and thoroughly chewing it before lifting the next. He was shaken from his thoughts by the appearance on the sidewalk of a feeble, filthy-looking man in a threadbare khaki service jacket and long, reddish hair. This man sat on the curb across from the unoccupied outside tables, pulling his booted feet under him, facing the window and looking in at Fletch. His face was bearded, but Fletch could see his acne-corroded cheeks under the beard. The man's eyes were intense, and Fletch felt uncomfortable and guilty being stared at. He tried not to look at the man, but his eyes were drawn to him. The man's teeth were black, and his mouth seemed swollen. With each surreptitious glimpse, Fletch thought less and less about his own choices and more and more about why it was so hard to look at that man. When he finished his meal, he asked at the counter for a cup of coffee to go, and when he got outside, he offered it to the man on the curb.
The man's eyes went soft with gratefulness, and he accepted the coffee with a gesture of thanks that made Fletch catch his breath. He wanted to ask questions, for his mind, as usual when he encountered something new or disturbing, was filling with confusions, but the frail, sickly-looking man, having received his handout, had turned inward, ignoring Fletch and sipping the coffee. After a moment, Fletch walked away. But just as he turned, another man, wearing a white apron, came out of the café, and Fletch heard an angry voice behind him. He saw the seated man drop his head into his raised knees while the other berated him and shoved him over, so that he rolled on his side. The man from the café, raising his voice even more and kicking at the tramp with the side of his foot, made it clear he would not stop till he had succeeded in driving him off. For a moment, Fletch considered what he should do. Then, seeing the coffee he had given the man puddled in the gutter, he turned, feeling guilty and bad about himself and wicked for running away.
Fletch was not accustomed to feeling wicked. The feeling took away the interest he formerly had in his choices, so that, when he came to I-88, he just drove onto the entrance ramp without noticing whether he was taking the eastbound or westbound lanes, and even after he was on the Interstate and cruising at high speed, he forgot to notice which direction he was heading. Deeply troubled by feelings that were new to him, Fletch was lost in contemplation. The world seemed, right from the very beginning of his entrance into it, far more complicated and mysterious, dangerous and pitiless, than he had ever imagined.
He had been born and raised in DeKalb, a typical Midwestern town of little distinction, where he was both educationally and socially deprived, and where a girl his own age, Thea, herself an uneducable social misfit, identified him as her property while they were still in high school. The move to Romeoville came with the job, and with help from their parents, the newly married couple made a life. DeKalb and Romeoville were all the world Fletch knew.
The image of the weary, bedraggled man with his knees up and his head buried in them and the hovering anger of the other was burned into his mind. The angry voice, disembodied as it was, echoed in him. The wickedness he felt in himself was connected to this image, and he felt that the voice was directed at him. He drove, suppressing tears, trying to block his thinking, but all unsuccessfully. His cheeks were wet. He came out of his daze somewhere in Wisconsin, and when he realized where he was, he felt another sinking. "Wisconsin?" He didn't know where he was going. He would have to stop somewhere and gas up. He would have to stop somewhere and find a job. He would have to stop somewhere!
He stopped in Madison where he gassed up at a convenience store and bought a newspaper and a toothbrush and razor; then, to conserve money, he drove back to the interstate and pulled off at a rest stop to spend the night. In the classifieds he saw a number of jobs he might look into. Feeling hopeful, he leaned over and fell asleep.
* * *
In his old life, even Thea called him Fletch. In his new life, he was known as John. The difference was, for him, all the difference. He was proud of himself. He got work at the very first place he tried—a bakery. After the first few months, the proprietor trusted him enough to give him the keys to the building and to assign him to the most important job. John Fletcher arrived at the shop at five a.m., let himself in, and set to work making the three kinds of dough that later in the morning would be used to bake various kinds of breads, rolls, and buns that were the shop's staple. Later in the morning he helped the baker make cakes, cookies, and pies; and in the afternoon he worked the counter and the cash register.
Behind his white apron, which he put on fresh and clean each morning, John Fletcher loved the bakery. The work was congenial, the baker, Mr. Fabrio, was a gentle man, and John liked the coming and going of the people. Best of all, his trustworthiness, which quickly became apparent, released the baker's wife from her bondage to the shop, and for this the baker and his wife profoundly valued their new worker.
John loved Mr. Fabrio. He was a short, round, bald man with a ruddy complexion who was talkative and demonstrably affectionate, frequently putting an arm around John's shoulders, patting him on the back, rubbing his hair, always leaving him smudged with flour. In the back, Mr. Fabrio worked furiously in a veritable cloud of flour, producing from his ovens the most astonishing eatables, which John handled with delicacy and reverence. This new life was better than John ever imagined life could be.
The only thing missing was Thea, and over her he felt a bad conscience. After nine months, he had accumulated a little money, and he thought hard about whether he should call her and tell her where he was and what he was doing, and invite her to join him. He imagined them living in a new accord, both of them happy in a tranquil home in a suburban neighborhood. The thought of the pleasure he would get from this new arrangement, however, was dampened by the certainty of her fury. And then, he would think other thoughts.
John Fletcher formed the habit of offering a cookie to any child who came in with a parent. At first, the baker disapproved, but after a while, seeing how the practice generated such good will and loyalty among his customers, he turned his back on it. One afternoon, a woman with a child entered who caught John's eye for the poverty of their appearance. The shop was busy, and when Mr. Fabrio, coming out from the back to lend a hand, saw them, he rolled his eyes at John and indicated he should watch them. The woman, noticing how she was watched by the two men, fingered the loaves of bread in the open bins and the hard rolls next to them but acted like she couldn't decide what she wanted. As the shop began to empty, she looked guiltily at John and grabbed her daughter's hand as if to leave. The baker, eyeing them hostilely, shrugged and returned to the back.
As she neared the door, John called to her.
"Don't leave without a cookie for the girl."
He then offered the child a large, round oatmeal cookie, which she grasped with a dirty hand and held to her chest. For a moment the woman stood looking at him. He avoided eye contact with her, feeling ashamed, but he did notice a large, crusty-dark scab on her neck. Then, she thanked him as she made once again to leave. Again, John called.
"Couldn't you find what you wanted?"
The woman, her hand pushing on the door, stopped and turned.
"We made a mistake coming in. Thanks for the cookie."
"Did you want a loaf of bread?" he persisted.
"No, thanks," she replied.
"Here," he said, offering one of the loaves she had handled. He dropped it in a white paper sack, crumpled the top, and handed it over the counter.
"I can't pay for it," she said.
"I know," he replied, standing behind the counter.
The woman took the sack, pushed open the door, and dragged her daughter after her. The baker was standing in the doorway between the outer shop and the back, staring at him with cold, disapproving eyes.
"Don't make a habit of that," he said sternly, and John shrugged and busied himself tidying up the counter.
He went home that evening with his mind filled. Would that woman come back because of what he did? What if she did? What should he do? He thought of the sternness in Mr. Fabrio's voice. His heart was filled with it. The baker's kindly face had turned hard and cold. He felt, also, that same mysterious wickedness he had first felt in Naperville. It was that feeling which prompted him to give the bread. He felt something else, too, as he thought about the incident. He couldn't identify the feeling, but whatever it was, it threatened him. It threatened him because of the impulse and because of his conscience. All that evening his uneasiness grew.
He slept dreamlessly and woke to the alarm, feeling unrefreshed and feeling something he had never felt before—it was as though a dark, lightening-fringed cloud had drifted behind his eyes and affected the way he saw and felt. He thought about it as he shaved. He thought about it as he showered. He thought about it as he dressed. It filled his mind as he sat at the red light on his way to the bakery, the streets still dark and deserted. And it distracted him from his usual pleasure at the smell of the bakery's back room when he let himself in, turned on the lights, put up the coffee, and went to work.
All that day he worked by rote, his body doing what it had become accustomed to do, while his mind was absorbed with the ominous darkness that had settled there. The baker noticed but didn't intrude. He stood aside and watched John as he filled the bread pans and swabbed the doughs with egg whites and water and sprinkled sesame seeds. He tried to shake his worker out of whatever was absorbing him by acting more cheerful than usual and by slapping him on the back and encouraging him with praise. Mr. Fabrio looked into John Fletcher's face and knew that something had changed.
"What is it?" he said the next day, when he saw his worker's mood was just as gloomy as the day before. "What troubles you, John?"
John looked into the baker's kindly eyes, seeing darkly the thing he had been discovering and not knowing how to understand. He had come to love the baker, who was much older and who treated him like a son, and he had come to love the bakery, not just the making of breads and cakes and cookies and pies, but also the people who came in to buy all these things. He loved to watch them, to see their faces lighten with pleasure as they looked at the rye loaves and the pumpernickel rolls and the refrigerated cases with all their bright things. He loved especially to give a cookie to a boy or a girl who didn't expect one. All these things he knew most vividly by contrast with his former life, which he lived almost entirely secluded from others—behind his welder's helmet, the electrical arc stinging the air with ozone; or his pneumatic gun in hand thumping rivets in neat rows; or at the press, rolling, shaping, cutting—where there was never another person with whom he could share a sweaty moment.
His former life slithered into his new one, establishing itself there and whispering to him that all he thought and felt about his life as "John" was an illusion. A change of place did not change the nature of things. The baker and his foreman were inexplicably the same person. The bakery and the metal shop were one and the same. Life did not change, and neither did he. He thought these things and was afraid, for he didn't know how to understand them.
The revelation occurred only a few days later when a regular customer came in with her son, a sweet-faced five-year old who thanked Fletch politely for the cookie he had come to expect. As the boy's mother busied herself looking about the shop, the boy stood in front of the counter behind which John stood staring back at the boy. In the look of honeyed expectation on the boy's face, Fletch saw and recognized all the meanings that were eluding him. He saw himself, also, so clearly that the revelation came as a shock, as though a great hammer had fallen on an anvil.
"Choose a cookie," he said, unsmilingly.
The boy immediately pointed to a tray with almond-topped cookies.
"Thank you," he said, taking the cookie from John's outstretched hand.
"You're welcome," Fletch said, looking away, his face a somber mask; and as though time had shifted under and around him, he saw in the otherwise absolute darkness flashes of electrical arcing accompanied by the smell of ozone. The boy's mother made her purchase, took her son by the hand, and departed. In the afterimage she left in Fletch's imagination, she was round-faced Thea, her voice grating and unpleasant, and all around him he heard the heartless laughter of his fellow workers.
"Goodbye," he said emotionlessly, long after the door closed.